Commentary Magazine


Jeb Can’t Win By Running Against the Base

Apparently Jeb Bush isn’t listening to his mother. Though he has yet to make anything like a definitive statement about his plans for 2016, the former governor of Florida is not only acting like a presidential candidate but members of his family are speaking as if they believe he will run. His son George P. Bush yesterday told ABC News that it’s “more than likely” that his father would run. The son and brother of former presidents has also been campaigning hard for Republican candidates and reportedly meeting with GOP fundraisers who are eager for Bush to provide them with a moderate and/or establishment alternative to the current crop of conservatives lining up to run. But though momentum is building for him to enter the race, a lot of pundits are, while extolling Bush as his party’s best hope, are wondering whether he is too “moderate” to win its presidential nomination. Are they right?

The conventional wisdom in the mainstream liberal media about the Republican Party is that it has been abducted by its right wing and has no hope of winning another presidential election until it learns to win back the hearts of women and the growing number of Hispanic voters. While much of the overheated rhetoric heard from liberals about the Tea Party is both inaccurate and unfair, there is some truth to this argument.

No political party can win by only appealing to the most extreme elements of its base. Nor can the GOP hope to prevail by deliberately snubbing those elements of the electorate that it lost badly in 2012. Bush is probably the most appealing of all the possible Republican centrists who could run and has as good, if not better, chance to appeal to the independent voters as any candidate. It should also be pointed out that in spite of the conservative cast of the party, in the last two election cycles the GOP has nominated the most moderate of the major contenders.

The primary obstacle to a Bush candidacy has also collapsed as President Obama’s disastrous second term has helped burnish the memory of his predecessor. The Bush name may still be a punch line on the left but George W. Bush’s noble demeanor after leaving office and the catastrophes in the Middle East that have unfolded on Obama’s watch have taken the sting out of the Bush legacy.

There is also a belief that Bush will stand out as a reasoned voice in a 2016 GOP field that may be dominated by more hard-line conservatives like Senator Ted Cruz or a libertarian like Senator Rand Paul. In theory, that should set up Jeb for the same kind of run to the nomination that enabled John McCain to win in 2008 and Mitt Romney to play in 2012.

But there are some obvious obstacles that must be overcome before the Bush clan and their supporters starts planning their move back to the White House. Despite the rush in the media to anoint him as the Republican front-runner in a race that will start to take shape next summer, Jeb Bush cannot win the nomination, let alone the presidency, by running against his party’s base.

Let’s understand that although Bush has a well-earned reputation as a good governor and a serious thinker about policy issues, no one should assume that most Republicans are all that eager to put a Bush on their national ticket for the seventh time in the last ten presidential elections. Though Republicans have tended in the past to like familiar names, it is the Democrats who are more deferential these days to existing dynasties as the impending nomination of Hillary Clinton shows. The 2016 race looks to be the most wide-open GOP race in several decades and many in the party not only agree with Barbara Bush that the country needs some fresh names, not recycled dynasties. With Hillary Clinton as their opponent, Republicans will be better off providing a fresh alternative to an attempt to gain revenge for George H.W. Bush’s 1992 defeat at the hands of her husband.

Far more troubling for Bush is his seeming determination to win not by winning over conservatives but by flaunting his disagreements on key issues.

To note the gap between Bush’s positions on issues like immigration and the Common Core education and possible tax increases is not the same thing as agreeing with all of his critics. Bush’s instincts on immigration are correct and the GOP would do well not to heed those in the conservative camp who believe that the growth of the Hispanic population is somehow a negative thing for the country irrespective of how we change the immigration laws. Common Core is a complicated issue on which smart people differ and others would do well not to try and demonize those on either side. And even when it comes to theoretical debates about raising taxes, Bush’s refusal to give an ironclad pledge can easily be defended, as our Pete Wehner did here last week.

But Bush’s complaints about the rightward trend of the party bodes ill for his efforts to win over the same conservatives that he is going to need to win both the nomination and the general election. It should be remembered that while both McCain and Romney won the nomination contest as the leading moderates in a field populated by conservatives, they did so by seeking to bridge the gap with the right, not smacking it down as Bush sometimes seems to want to do.

The complaints from some on the right that McCain and Romney lost because they were insufficiently conservative are bunk. Both probably did as well, if not better than possible Republican opponent of Barack Obama. But they’re not wrong when they note that no GOP candidate can win without an enthusiastic base or by disdaining their concerns.

Bush’s qualifications are second to none. But the current polls that put him at the head of a field of possible candidates is based purely on name recognition. If Jeb Bush wants to be the face of the Republican Party in 2016, he must forge a new winning coalition that must include those who disagree with him. If he can’t, no matter how many leading establishment donors embrace him, there will be no third President Bush.

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2 Responses to “Jeb Can’t Win By Running Against the Base”

  1. RICH KIME says:

    His instincts on immigration aren’t correct, or even very close to being so. He is inclined not only to ignore immigration laws already passed by Congress, but to loosen them at the first opportunity.

    You’re right about his position in relation to the party’s base. He has disdain for people who care about border security. I don’t know any Republicans who oppose growth of any kind in the Hispanic community, but many, like myself, oppose the unlimited growth of a 3rd world peasant class and the social and economic problems that come with them. I don’t think it’s terribly unreasonable to have these concerns. In fact, I think it’s irrational not to have them.

    The refusal by our elites to enforce even the most basic border security laws under any circumstances, and their disregard for the impact this has on American citizens, shows how utterly fanatical they are about this issue. Claiming that the party’s base is extreme in its position is as complete an inversion of reality as I can imagine.

  2. ERIC SCHUMANN says:

    These words sent a chill down my spine: “… that should set up Jeb for the same kind of run to the nomination that enabled John McCain to win in 2008 and Mitt Romney to play in 2012.” Fine losers, both. President Obama has both “fundamentally transformed” America, and revealed the failure and corruption inherent in the big government approach. Now is not the time for timidity. If a strong conservative message can’t win now, when could it possibly win? And if the GOP doesn’t run on a strong conservative message, there can be no mandate to change the status quo. And the status quo must change – that was the lesson of 2010. We saw what “compassionate conservatism” under a Republican President and GOP-controlled Congress meant in practice – more government. The recent Yougov poll shows that the majority of voters in a majority of states favor cutting spending over raising taxes or a combined approach, supports repealing Obamacare, and strongly opposes amnesty. This is the agenda of Ted Cruz and the other “hard liners” this website so loathes. Jeb Bush and the Chamber of Commerce junkies in the GOP leadership disdain the citizens who support the tea party movement liberty agenda – how does the party shed its well-earned image as beholden to the plutocratic class by prioritizing cheap labor for the Chamber of Commerce? You folks may be forced to support and defend a Ted Cruz two years from now – as hard as you may be trying now to avoid that circumstance.

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