Jeb Bush Is Dismissing the GOP Base at His Own Peril

Republican voters aren’t looking for reforms. They want to cut the size of government.

National Journal
Dec. 16, 2014, 3:28 p.m.

Six months after Pres­id­ent Obama’s 2008 land­slide vic­tory swept Demo­crats in­to power across the coun­try, Jeb Bush, Mitt Rom­ney, and Eric Can­tor sat down at a sub­urb­an Wash­ing­ton pizzer­ia to talk policy. They spent that May week­end ar­guing that the GOP’s best path back in­to power was to im­prove the party’s battered im­age by ad­voc­at­ing re­forms for edu­ca­tion, im­mig­ra­tion, and the eco­nomy. Can­tor saw the ses­sion as a rebrand­ing ex­er­cise, of­fer­ing mostly plat­it­udes about hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with the Amer­ic­an people. Rom­ney used the event as early pre­par­a­tion for his second pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, mostly stick­ing to talk­ing points. But Jeb Bush came pre­pared with a slew of cre­at­ive pro­pos­als to test out at the town hall, like char­ging lower tu­ition to stu­dents pur­su­ing high-end de­grees in en­gin­eer­ing and sci­ence.

After the event ended, sev­er­al re­port­ers (my­self in­cluded) chased after Bush to ask him the in­ev­it­able ques­tions about his in­terest in run­ning for pres­id­ent. He was vis­ibly an­noyed, lament­ing that Wash­ing­ton re­port­ers only ask about the polit­ic­al horse race and have no in­terest in policy.

With Bush’s an­nounce­ment Tues­day that he’s form­ing an ex­plor­at­ory com­mit­tee for pres­id­ent, he’ll be test­ing the pro­pos­i­tion that be­ing a policy wonk sells polit­ic­ally. In dis­cuss­ing pre­par­a­tions for a run this week, Bush con­fid­ently de­clared he wouldn’t pander to Re­pub­lic­an voters, stick­ing to his prin­ciples on im­mig­ra­tion and edu­ca­tion re­form. In prin­ciple, the ar­gu­ment is re­fresh­ing. In prac­tice, however, it ig­nores polit­ic­al real­ity.

The or­gan­iz­a­tion that Can­tor launched (the Na­tion­al Coun­cil for Amer­ica) nev­er got off the ground des­pite the hype. Re­pub­lic­ans won back con­trol of Con­gress simply by run­ning against an un­pop­u­lar pres­id­ent, not by of­fer­ing a set of solu­tions to fix the coun­try’s strug­gling eco­nomy. Des­pite be­ing House ma­jor­ity lead­er, Can­tor lost his primary to an ob­scure op­pon­ent—in part be­cause he over­es­tim­ated the polit­ic­al re­ward of pitch­ing lofty re­forms and ig­nored the day-to-day dis­sat­is­fac­tion from his own con­stitu­ents. In his second pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, Rom­ney struggled to lock up the nom­in­a­tion against a deeply con­ser­vat­ive field and was un­able to cap­it­al­ize on Obama’s me­diocre ap­prov­al rat­ings.

Oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans have talked in high-minded fash­ion about selling con­ser­vat­ive re­forms to GOP voters, but found there wasn’t much polit­ic­al be­ne­fit in do­ing so. New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie be­came fam­ous for his tough talk against waste­ful gov­ern­ment and teach­ers uni­ons in his first term, but has all but aban­doned ad­voc­at­ing new ideas since cam­paign­ing for reelec­tion. Lately, the fam­ously out­spoken gov­ernor has avoided policy ques­tions on im­mig­ra­tion (des­pite trav­el­ing in Mex­ico!) and on the Sen­ate re­port on the CIA’s in­ter­rog­a­tion tech­niques. Louisi­ana Gov. Bobby Jin­dal has got­ten little polit­ic­al trac­tion pro­mot­ing re­forms on health care, en­ergy, edu­ca­tion, and na­tion­al se­cur­ity, and he’s care­ful to frame his ideas in op­pos­i­tion to Obama. Once a sup­port­er of the Com­mon Core edu­ca­tion­al stand­ards that Jeb Bush cham­pi­ons, Jin­dal now com­pares them to So­viet cent­ral plan­ning.

Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida, a Jeb Bush aco­lyte who is mulling a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign of his own, learned firsthand the polit­ic­al risk in em­bra­cing change. By cham­pi­on­ing com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form, Ru­bio ali­en­ated much of the con­ser­vat­ive base and got side­tracked from oth­er is­sues that could also broaden the party’s ap­peal. Bush is an equally en­thu­si­ast­ic pro­ponent of im­mig­ra­tion re­form, but un­like Ru­bio, he plans to con­tin­ue push­ing it in a GOP primary. Ru­bio re­spon­ded this year by de­liv­er­ing a series of speeches centered on eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­ity, but now Bush’s planned can­did­acy puts a crimp in his path to the nom­in­a­tion.

Can­did­ates want to be seen as hav­ing a de­tailed blue­print on how to get the coun­try back on track, but it’s those very de­tails that lead to un­in­ten­ded con­sequences. Re­pub­lic­an of­fi­cials con­fid­ently pro­moted com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form as a sure­fire way to im­prove the party’s stand­ing with His­pan­ics, but blow­back from the base and res­ist­ance from the pub­lic tempered the en­thu­si­asm. The polit­ic­al be­ne­fits of court­ing His­pan­ics was off­set by the risk of ali­en­at­ing the GOP’s base of work­ing-class whites.

Edu­ca­tion re­form is a rare is­sue that unites ele­ments of the Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an parties, but the de­tails of im­prov­ing ac­count­ab­il­ity spark in­tense op­pos­i­tion. Some con­ser­vat­ives op­pose any top-down re­forms em­an­at­ing from Wash­ing­ton, while some lib­er­als res­ist a one-size-fits-all sys­tem ham­stringing teach­er cre­ativ­ity. Not to men­tion that the sprawl­ing edu­ca­tion­al bur­eau­cracy, the tar­get of many re­forms, is a re­li­able source of em­ploy­ment.

Cut­ting en­ti­tle­ments to bal­ance the budget is an­oth­er is­sue that is em­braced by gov­ern­ment re­formers, but is very hard to win sup­port for polit­ic­ally. Polls show that even the most con­ser­vat­ive voters op­pose cut­ting So­cial Se­cur­ity or Medi­care be­ne­fits. Rom­ney’s choice of Paul Ry­an as his run­ning mate was in­ten­ded to send the mes­sage that he was com­mit­ted to mak­ing the tough choices to get the coun­try’s eco­nomy back on track. In real­ity, in­clud­ing one of the GOP’s most re­spec­ted fisc­al re­formers car­ried little be­ne­fit for the Re­pub­lic­an tick­et.

Last week, Bush said that to make a cam­paign suc­cess­ful, he must “lose the primary to win the gen­er­al.” But it’s im­port­ant for him to make it clear­er that he’s cri­ti­ciz­ing the primary pro­cess, yet not dis­miss­ing the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s voters. A ma­jor­ity of the GOP elect­or­ate is in­her­ently skep­tic­al of gov­ern­ment’s abil­ity to do good, even when it’s used to pro­mote mar­ket-based re­forms. Those feel­ings have in­tens­i­fied un­der Obama, who has ag­gress­ively ex­pan­ded gov­ern­ment’s reach and re­lied on ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders as a sub­sti­tute for work­ing with Con­gress to pass le­gis­la­tion. Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion is filled with tech­no­crats who con­fid­ently be­lieve they’re smarter than the av­er­age Amer­ic­an.

Bush is something of a con­ser­vat­ive tech­no­crat him­self, fo­cus­ing his ef­forts on fig­ur­ing out how to make gov­ern­ment work most ef­fect­ively—not on cut­ting it down to size. He’d prob­ably find com­mon ground with lib­er­al former San Fran­cisco May­or Gav­in New­s­om, whose book Cit­izen­ville ar­gued that in or­der for Demo­crats to make the case for a more act­iv­ist gov­ern­ment, they needed to in­nov­ate from with­in first.

But that’s not how many Re­pub­lic­an voters feel, and it goes well bey­ond the tea-party wing of the party. In Septem­ber, Gal­lup found that only 41 per­cent of re­spond­ents thought that “gov­ern­ment should do more to solve the coun­try’s prob­lems.” Bush can’t af­ford to simply dis­miss the con­ser­vat­ive crit­ics and run a gen­er­al-elec­tion strategy from the out­set. He’ll need to ag­gress­ively win the de­bate from with­in.

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