At times like this, Joy is not the most obvious theme to build a presidential campaign around. So it is all the more surprising that Jeb Bush cannot stop talking about that most delightful and fleeting of human emotions.
The 61-year-old second son of George and Barbara Bush likes to say that the matter of running for President comes down to his inner spirits–“whether I can do it with joy in my heart.” As 2014 came to a close, all signs pointed to a long season of merriment. His interview schedule quickened, and he began positioning himself as a candidate–creating a political committee to raise money, announcing the writing of a new e-book and planning the release of old public records. His message to the enormous network of Bush donors, whom he has spent a year meeting: Don’t commit to anyone else. “You can tell he has been on a big stage for decades,” said one donor whom Bush met in South Carolina. “He’s not afraid to tell you what he thinks.”
And what he thinks is that after 15 years of bad news and divisive politics, the nation just might be ready for some Sunshine State uplift. “We are moping around like we are France,” he said on Dec. 1 in an address to corporate leaders. “The crisis of opportunity is, we are not seizing the moment. We are not aspiring to be young and dynamic again.”
As Bush sees it, the solutions are right in front of us, if only we can embrace the glee and change: reform the immigration system to flood the nation with brilliant entrepreneurs from abroad, open the taps of domestic energy production, kick the K-12 education system in the rear and fix the tax, regulatory and entitlement systems.
Relentless optimism, of course, is not a novel pose for a presidential contender, but it is hard to remember a candidate so committed to a psychological analysis of the political landscape this early in the cycle. To his own party, the shrink’s critique has a neat corollary. “You don’t do well in bringing people together if you are carping, criticizing, turning around and saying you are not as good as me,” he said in one interview.
That line of attack–which moves the fight away from ideological differences–could serve him well in what is certain to be a brutal primary against a pack of politicians far more conservative, religious and attuned to the ever changing grassroots id. It’s also a message that is likely to defang his most fearsome rival for the Establishment crown, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whose spirit animal is more carnivorous than cuddly. “[Bush] is going to be a very effective candidate if he runs, because he is going to talk about the future without backing down or pandering to the Tea Party side,” explains Charlie Black, a Republican lobbyist who has been involved in presidential politics since 1976.
Is the country ready for another general election between a Clinton and a Bush? Jeb’s family, long wary of taking on the personal burden of another campaign, now finds solace where others see alarm. At an event in October, George W. Bush pitched his brother’s candidacy before a group of skeptical donors. “What’s the difference if it’s Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama-Clinton or Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama-Bush?” he said. In other words, as long as Hillary Clinton is running, there is no reason for Jeb to hold back.
Far less clear is whether there are enough Republicans left in early-primary states who will put joyful promise before their deep feelings of grievance and need for reform. Bush last ran for public office in 2002, long before conservatives, libertarians and the Tea Party decided that his family’s tradition of Big Government conservatism was the problem, not the solution. As Bush has wisely observed, his best route to victory in 2016 may require him to lose the fevered primary-state policy arguments while still finding a way to get more votes.
That’s a tough circle to square if all you are working with are facts and figures. But joy exists outside the realm of what is. That’s why we all seek it: to make something else of who we are.
–WITH REPORTING BY ZEKE J. MILLER/WASHINGTON
This appears in the December 29, 2014 issue of TIME.