Four Questions for Jeb Bush
by Daniel Scotto
Now that it appears clear that “Bush 2016” is actually a thing, it is high time to move beyond “Please, please, please don’t run!” into a more systematic evaluation of Bush as a potential choice. Andrew Ferguson at the Weekly Standard has an extremely useful piece on Jeb Bush’s governing record, and serves as an important reminder for conservatives: Jeb was widely viewed as an extremely successful, conservative governor at the end of his term. Ferguson highlights a few of Jeb’s accomplishments: large-scale privatization of public services, big budget surpluses, a AAA bond rating, a major shift in favor of abortion restrictions, and relaxed gun laws. Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard called him the best governor in America back in 2006, and noted that Jeb would be the clear frontrunner for 2008 if he had a different name. Andrew Card, W’s former chief of staff, reiterated the same sentiments a few months ago, noting that there were both positives and negatives to the Bush name in 2015.
A bunch of conservatives are clamoring for a candidate with executive experience, political success, and a conservative governing record. Jeb Bush is that candidate. Maybe Scott Walker can match that record, but Jeb managed to govern conservatively without nearly as much sturm und drang, and Walker’s early missteps go beyond simple “what about your gaffes?“-style gaffes: they genuinely call into question his ability to handle the 18 months of brutal campaigning, and possibly even the presidency itself.
On the record alone, if you’re on the Left, Jeb looks like a bit of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But if you’re on the Right, on record alone, Jeb looks an awful lot like President Obama: a politician with clear ideological preferences who is able to sell those positions as common-sense or moderate. One key indicator: media portrayals. The media declared Obama a “centrist” alternative to Hillary Clinton back in 2006. Jeb is now the “moderate former Florida governor.” Both portrayals are inaccurate, full stop, but there is some broad benefit to being seen as a centrist.
For all of Jeb’s strengths on paper–and they will be strengths, once the money starts flowing–I see four broad questions that are most likely to trip him up. Republicans have the benefit of depth this time around, so they probably will not have to “settle” on Jeb like they settled on Romney, or even McCain. That makes the bar for Jeb higher. His team should be focused on coming up with good answers to the following four questions:
1. Why shouldn’t I be worried about the “dynasty” issue?
The thought of Bush/Clinton 2016 leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. A replay of 1992? The country’s two most entrenched political families duking it out? The small-r republican’s blood boils at the thought.
On the other hand, America has had family dynasties for centuries: obviously, John Quincy Adams benefited enormously from his father’s reputation and status as a Founder. Before the Bushes, the Republicans were the party of the Tafts, with William Howard Taft’s 1912 actions saving the Republican Party from Teddy Roosevelt, and Robert Taft’s labor legislation remaining perhaps the most important conservative economic policy accomplishment of the past 100 years. Would conservatives have been better off without Robert Taft?
From another angle, Will Wilkinson suggests that the unwieldy federal government demands to be run by insiders; true outsiders might be overwhelmed by the power of the permanent bureaucracy, while an insider like Jeb Bush will have the connections he needs to prevent bureaucratic abuse. This is an uncomfortable thought, but it has a certain logic: family connections are not mandatory, per se, but perhaps some direct familiarity with or access to the bureaucracy might be.
Really, though, even if they are intellectually (somewhat) satisfying, “Robert Taft” and “principle-agent problem” are not persuasive answers in a campaign speech or a Town Hall Q&A. It will be interesting to see how Jeb approaches it.
2. Why should I be willing to re-run Bush versus Clinton, specifically?
Bill Clinton is widely regarded as a successful president; George W. Bush is widely regarded as a failed president. A Hillary Clinton/Jeb Bush race would, on paper, be pitting the 1990s against the 2000s. On paper, no swing voter would pick the 2000s over the 1990s, ceteris paribus.
That should sort of end the discussion, in some respects: why do so many donors and members of the establishment desperately want that fight, on those terms? Moreover, the polling data very much hints at time for a change:
Unfortunately for Clinton, a 51 percent majority of respondents says the former secretary of state “would represent too much of a return to the policies of the past; 44 percent say she’d “provide the new ideas and vision the country will need.”
Great, right? Not exactly…
The numbers for Bush are worse: 60 percent tie the former Florida governor to “policies of the past,” while just 27 percent credit him with “new ideas and vision.”
Hillary Clinton has strengths as a candidate, but her incredibly long tenure in the public eye is a genuine weakness that Republicans can exploit. But in nominating Jeb, Republicans would be surrendering this structural advantage.
Relatedly, it would be useful to keep an eye on George W. Bush’s favorability ratings; at last check, he was up to 49 percent. If Bush 43’s ratings were where they were back in 2008, this would be a complete non-starter. But the benefit of time makes a Jeb run (slightly) less problematic on that front.
Lastly, even if Bush 43’s favorability looks decent now, the 2016 campaign will bring up all of the negatives of Bush 43’s term. So a question that candidate Jeb would undoubtedly get would be about his brother’s presidency. From the second debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama:
Governor Romney, I am an undecided voter because I’m disappointed with the lack of progress I’ve seen in the last four years. However, I do attribute much of America’s economic and international problems to the failings and missteps of the Bush administration. Since both you and President Bush are Republicans, I fear a return to the policies of those years should you win this election. What is the biggest difference between you and George W. Bush, and how do you differentiate yourself from George W. Bush?
Romney spent several seconds trying to go back to the previous question (which was not a great idea in the context of this question!), but he answered by mostly dodging. He starts by talking about “energy independence,” which George W. Bush also emphasized. He then talked about “cracking down on China,” which is an awfully minor distinction, and immediately pivoted to “expanding trade in Latin America.” Can anyone possibly think that Bush’s main issue was a lack of support for free trade?
Romney finally, after all of this hemming and hawing, gets to the need for a balanced budget. Politically, that’s an OK answer, but it took him way too long to get there. He then pivoted to “helping small business,” which, again, is not something that Bush would have disagreed with.
At the very least, to mitigate this in part, Jeb will need a real, genuine distinction on an issue of substance. Something like, “I wouldn’t have gone into Iraq,” or “It turns out that No Child Left Behind was a bad law; I’m in favor of federal standards, but…” (These are just examples; I’d be shocked if he used either, specifically.) He can say all he wants about being “his own man,” but if Jeb does not have a better answer than Romney did in 2012, he will not win the election without a black swan event intervening, and thus should not win the nomination.
3. How do you explain your “heresies?”
Peggy Noonan has nailed the issue with Jeb Bush’s early campaigning:
Jeb is declaring before he wins that he will take particular stands at odds with many in the base—for comprehensive immigration reform, for the Common Core.
He said the other day he’s doing it because he has “a backbone.” That’s a strut, not an argument. It will be interesting to hear the argument. He should meet—publicly—with anti-Common-Core parents, take every question, answer every criticism, and make his case with data and through the prism of experience.
Can Jeb Bush really explain his positions on Common Core and immigration to conservative audiences, rather than just “strutting” about them? He will need to do more than just disdaining conservatives and others who question him on their wisdom. Forums with groups of opponents are a great starting point. is substantial, We will be hearing all about Bush’s conservative record once he starts carpet-bombing the airwaves with ads. But he needs to show that he understands the party today: it is very skeptical of elites and authority in general, and the federal government specifically. The party establishment might not share those concerns, but the establishment on its own will not be enough.
4. Why should I pick you over Marco Rubio?
This is probably Bush’s toughest question to answer. As the days pass and the field starts to sort itself out, Marco Rubio starts looking like the strongest candidate. But it remains unclear that Rubio will run; running would cost him his Senate seat. And 2016 just might not be the right year for Rubio; Ben Domenech convincingly describes Rubio as the “candidate with the most to lose.” So he might not run. He’s still quite young, and he is obviously close to Jeb Bush. More importantly, his supporters are closely aligned to Jeb. From the NY Times:
“I’m conjoined at the hip with Jeb Bush,” said Al Hoffman Jr., a retired Florida developer and one of Mr. Rubio’s top contributors, who also served as ambassador to Portugal under President George W. Bush. “Of course I love Marco, and if Jeb wasn’t in consideration, I’d do anything I could to support Marco.”
And from Dirk Van Dongen, who ran Mr. Rubio’s Washington fund-raising operation but is now supporting Mr. Bush: “Marco Rubio is very attractive. I’m very high on him, and if Jeb Bush were not in the race, I would certainly be there working for Marco.”
But Rubio is the stud. He is the best politician in the party. He is a powerful orator who makes conservative arguments effortlessly and persuasively. He is a policy innovator who is very much on board with reform conservativism. He has an awesome backstory. He can win the support of the establishment and the Tea Party.
One is reminded of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign a bit with Rubio: Obama was neck-and-neck in the polls in South Carolina for a while, with many voters unwilling to abandon Hillary Clinton when Obama’s viability was in question. But Obama’s victory in Iowa was followed almost immediately by a polling swing in South Carolina, and Obama won a commanding victory in the South Carolina primary.
A similar dynamic could occur with Rubio. The establishment is presently on board with Jeb, but that might not last if Rubio proves himself a strong campaigner. In that case, staying with Jeb–when Rubio brings so many of Jeb’s strengths to the table without the weaknesses–might seem silly. Bush won’t need to train his fire on Rubio yet, but he’ll need to be ready to do so, if Rubio starts to appear viable.
The bottom line for conservatives in March 2015 is that the field for the 2016 nomination looks solid, and a lot are happy to exclude Jeb Bush from consideration. But a lot of that could go south, quickly: Scott Walker might continue to flounder, Rick Perry might perform poorly again, and a bunch of the more accomplished Republican governors–folks like Mike Pence and Susana Martinez–might choose to opt out entirely. That could leave Republicans with a much weaker field, with a menu of Chris Christie, who is overly moderate and vaguely Gaullist; Ted Cruz, who is probably unelectable; Rand Paul, who is still something of a political enigma; the newly-angry Mike Huckabee, who is hawking natural diabetes remedies and railing against pop singers; Bobby Jindal, whose governing record is troubling; and of course Rick Santorum.
In that field, Jeb might end up being the last, best option standing, having been battle-tested in the fray for a full year. But he’ll be a lot easier to pick if he can answer those four questions.
[Picture: Screen shot of youtube WSJ interview with Jeb Bush.]