Conservatives Not Yet Swayed by Sometimes Mundane Bush

Jeb Bush’s optimistic and reform-minded conservatism isn’t inspiring Republican voters yet.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 27, 2015
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 27, 2015 (Gage Skidmore)

Jeb Bush officially announced his candidacy for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination on Monday with a campaign launch in Florida that was designed to demonstrate inclusiveness and optimism.

Conservatives were not inspired.

In his speech and campaign videos, Bush presented himself as the candidate of reform, not grievance, reports Politico.

While other candidates have rattled off long lists of Washington failures, and as the Republican Party still struggles to shake off its reputation as the party of no, Bush emphasized his ability to not just spot weaknesses but also address them head-on.

He touted his reformist record as Florida governor and made a conscious effort to reach out to Latinos who have increasingly voted Democratic in recent presidential elections.

Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin was impressed. Even if Bush offered surprisingly few details, “he gave the best speech he’s unfurled since beginning his White House quest,” writes Halperin, “with‎ an energy level totally different than anything he’s demonstrated so far.”

The brother and son of two former Republican presidents has more often seemed mundane and wooden at reading speeches from teleprompters.

Erick Erickson — whose RedState is a popular echo chamber for right-wing activists — was among few conservatives to praise Bush’s performance, writing, “He gave a defense of limited government, a defense of school choice and a defense of religious liberty.”

And he did one key thing he needs to do going forward — focus on what was a very conservative record as Florida’s governor while ignoring his more recent statements that give conservatives justified heartburn.

Although Bush has challenged rightwingers to obsess less about ideological purity and care more about winning elections, a close look at his governing record in Florida reveals he is far less of a moderate than his detractors allow.

Over the course of eight years, Bush reduced state taxes by $14 billion. He eliminated thousands of public-sector jobs, introduced tougher crime laws for repeat offenders and expanded gun rights. Bush also created America’s first statewide school voucher program in Florida and has actively championed conservative education reforms, including charter schools, since.

It might not be enough to win over primary voters who tend to be more conservative than the average Republican voter — even if he is probably more electable nationally than his opponents.

The National Review‘s Rich Lowry recognizes that Bush is a “genuinely accomplished executive and a creative policy wonk with a natural sense of authority” but cautions that he will have a hard time winning the nomination.

Mitt Romney’s path to the nomination is unavailable to Bush, Lowry argues.

Bush can’t show up with a fundraising advantage, a professional operation and a resume, then expect to inexorably grind down all the other candidates. Romney could do that in 2012 against an unprepared Rick Perry, an undisciplined Newt Gingrich and an unfunded Rick Santorum. Bush is running against a field that has about a half dozen candidates who would have been in the top tier last time around.

Lowry might be overstating the qualities of candidates like Senators Rand Paul and Marco Rubio and (if he runs) Wisconsin governor Scott Walker but they are certainly more serious politicians than Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, both of whom were ahead of Romney in the polls at some point last time around.

Conservatives mistrusted Romney because he changed his views on abortion and implemented health-care reforms as governor of Massachusetts that served as the template for President Barack Obama’s own insurance overhaul.

Bush has a similar problem. What most conservatives have heard from him in recent years is laments about the Republican Party’s tone and his support for immigration reform, according to Lowry. Even if Bush is probably right on both counts, criticizing one’s own party seldom helps winning a primary election. Just ask Jon Huntsman.

Reihan Salam argues at Slate that Bush can win the primary. But only by running a scorched-earth campaign against his opponents that “will make it impossible for any Republican to win in 2016.”

Salam points out that primary voters who identify as “somewhat conservative” make up between 35 and 40 percent of the electorate and they are Bush’s “sweet spot”.

Somewhat conservatives “like even-keeled men with substantial governing experience” yet they’re also resistant to candidates who call for radical change or who seem eager to wage culture wars.

Combined with the support of the minority of self-identified centrist and liberal Republicans, the “somewhat conservative” voting bloc should be able to get Bush nominated while the other candidates vie for the affections of the party’s more reactionary wings.

His real foes are Rubio and Walker who could also appeal to “somewhat conservatives”. So Bush’s camp must discredit them both.

But will brutal attacks on Marco Rubio’s youth and inexperience inspire young people? Will months of tearing into Scott Walker encourage blue-collar Midwestern swing voters to back Bush?

Maybe not. But then, no Republican candidate is likely to win the support of many more young voters and Rust Belt workers than Romney did in 2012. Both demographics are far more likely to support Hillary Clinton, assuming she wins the Democratic Party’s nomination. Bush needs to win back Latino and middle-class voters in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia — and Florida. That is what could get him to the 270 electoral votes he needs to win.

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