Remember five months ago, when nobody was sure Jeb Bush was going to run for president in 2016?
It seems longer ago than it actually was. The drumbeat started in the media well before that about a possible Bush candidacy. But Jeb himself was on the fence, at least as regards his public statements, until just a few weeks ago.
Mark Halperin, writing in October, pointed out the absence of any serious Bush organization:
The second group [of observers], meanwhile, insists Jeb Bush will once again sit out the presidential race, this time scared off by the lethal-looking twin buzz saws of Common Core and immigration. Even more lethal, there are enduring murmurs that Jeb’s irrepressibly formidable mother, his wife, and his daughter are dead set against a run. Members of Group Two clock the echoing absence of the courtship of aggressive bundlers, interest-group activists, and Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina kingmakers, and conclude that there is no candidacy brewing—just a guy with a great résumé, a substantive agenda, and a brand name, stirring the pot.
The organization began to coalesce only after the new year, when observers still spoke of Jeb’s moves as “hinting at” a run.
By late January, all that had changed. One of the signs came with the blip of Mitt Romney’s brief resurgence. There was a lot of talk about the real potential for another Romney candidacy in January. But as the month drew to an end, reports began to surface that many of Romney’s big donors and bundlers were defecting to Jeb – along with top players from the 2012 campaign like Dave Kochel, Romney’s chief Iowa advisor.
A few weeks later, Chris Christie, long in the running to be the GOP establishment favorite, was reported to be losing donors to Jeb Bush as well.
But Christie’s support wasn’t being siphoned off only by Jeb. Scott Walker made a big splash at the Iowa Freedom Summit in late January, and in recent weeks has topped the Iowa polls by an increasing margin. Donors have noticed.
An aside on Walker, for comparison
Walker has been hard for both the left and the GOP establishment to pigeonhole. He hasn’t made his political name on social conservatism, like Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee. But he is an evangelical Christian and the son of a Baptist minister, and he doesn’t go out of his way to make “socially-liberal” gestures, with either policy ideas or personnel choices.
Walker has an impressive record of defeating the organized, entrenched forces of the left, meanwhile, with his path-breaking victory for restrictions on public-union bargaining in Wisconsin. Few voters might be able to give chapter and verse on what the controversy was all about, back in 2011. But most could recite the basics: Walker and the GOP legislative majority were beset with weeks of theatrical, highly unpleasant mob fury from leftist organizers, and yet Walker didn’t cave, and ultimately prevailed. (He has also prevailed in each of the incessant attempts made since 2011 to unseat or hamstring him and his supporters. Most voters know little about the recall elections and nuisance-indictment efforts. But the media are well aware of them.)
It’s not clear where or how things are going to shake out for Scott Walker, although it’s clear that he is being taken seriously, by the left as well as by GOP donors and voters. The left has gone into overdrive in the last month trying to trip him up and give the public a false impression of him.
Jeb, bannerman for the establishment
The reason I go through this litany is to contrast it with what we’re seeing from Jeb Bush. As he soaks up donors, he’s bringing onboard usual-suspect advisors (see here as well), and in particular, bringing them on with no regard to how they’ll come off to conservative voters, or what their value will be to thinking strategically about policy and platform.
Forming his initial PAC team, for example, Jeb tapped high-profile backers of amnesty for illegals and Common Core. He has also taken on advocates for gay issues and same-sex marriage, like consultant Tim Miller of America Rising and David Kochel (mentioned above).
The selection of Tim Miller may carry a separate and more significant portent, however, relating to the focus and tone of the impending Jeb Bush campaign. National Journal’s Emma Roller pointed out that Miller’s specialty is opposition research. She called his hiring by the Bush campaign a “big move against Hillary Clinton” – which may indeed be how Jeb and his advisors see it.
Frankly, that’s a fatally conventional and rearward-looking focus for a Republican eying 2016. Regardless of who the Democratic front-runner is by next year’s primary season, the real issue for the GOP is its internal divisions.
There’s no lack of policy ideas on the right; in fact, every governor and every third congressman has his or her package of policy ideas, bullet-pointed and posted on a website. What the party lacks is a unifying view of more basic things: what America is, what we’re supposed to be, and where we’re heading.
More and more voters feel this as either a depressing void, or a reason why participating in the political process, as it operates today, is futile, and their hopes lie in something more politically disruptive, such as a convention of the states. Scott Walker’s unusual record in Wisconsin may or may not be relevant to addressing that shortfall; the jury is still out. We know already that Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, to differing extents and from different perspectives, are prepared to at least talk explicitly about the problem.
But Jeb Bush doesn’t mean to even acknowledge it.
Hammering the base
Which is what throws into such strong relief his take-no-prisoners approach to this early stage of the campaign. Alert readers will recall his “anti-pandering pledge” in early December 2014, when he promised not to run to the right just to win the primaries:
Mr. Bush said at The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council in Washington that Republican candidates must be willing to “lose the primary to win the general, without violating your principles.”
“It’s not an easy task, to be honest with you,” he added.
Well, no – considering that you do have to win some primaries in order to get to the general election.
But the Jeb campaign created a stir this past week by busing supporters to the CPAC venue in Maryland – lively interest, as you might say, from such a dead cat. Setting up buses to ensure Jeb supporters are in the audience argues something beyond a mere willingness to have the candidate speak in less-friendly venues. The product of this effort appeared to be the audience applause for one of Jeb’s tiredest lines about there being no plan to “deport 11 million people” – a line with a prejudicial premise that the average CPAC goer would not, in fact, clap and cheer for.
There’s a whiff in this, not so much of trying to stack the CPAC straw poll, as of being unwilling to let the conservatives have their assembly on their own terms. It looks like using tactics to try to dilute the conservatives’ message. People who don’t think about it very hard may well take at face value the apparent favorable reaction from the audience to Jeb’s “not deporting 11 million people” line.
Add to that the recent revelations about the Bush campaign’s demand for exclusivity with political consulting firms – a year before the primaries even start.
Their message, according to dozens of interviews, is blunt: They want the top talent now, they have no interest in sharing, and they will remember those who signed on early — and, implicitly, those who did not. The aim is not just to position Mr. Bush as a formidable front-runner for the Republican nomination, but also to rapidly lock up the highest-caliber figures in the Republican Party and elbow out rivals by making it all but impossible for them to assemble a high-octane campaign team.
In the same article, the New York Times quotes donors describing Team Jeb’s hard-sell tactics to get them onboard:
Mr. Bush does not take maybe for an answer. When major party contributors are on the fence, he pressures, and flatters, them with questions about what it would take to win them over.
“How can I earn it?” he asks. “Give me milestones,” he suggests, according to people told of the conversations.
Those who hold out can sense a distinct chill. When a policy expert was not ready to commit to Mr. Bush, there was a long, pregnant silence on the other end of the telephone from Bill Simon, a former Walmart executive who is assembling Mr. Bush’s team.
Donors, in other words, aren’t being left to come to their own conclusions over time, any more than the CPAC conservatives are being left to put out their own message.
There’s nothing illegitimate about playing political hardball. But it’s informative that Jeb has gone from “maybe” to “damn the torpedoes” in the space of about three months, and is so aggressively pushing his advantages as an organizational juggernaut at this stage.
With all of that in mind, consider his somewhat impatient and dismissive attitude about the voters in general – not just conservatives in particular. As noted by Mark Krikorian at National Review, for example, Jeb is on record as comparing native-born Americans unfavorably to immigrants:
[Immigrants are] more entrepreneurial, they set up more business, they buy more homes, they’re more family-oriented, they work in jobs that in many cases are jobs that have gone unfilled…
Jeb is quite explicit that the native-born citizen is not the future of America:
The one way that we can rebuild the demographic pyramid is to fix a broken immigration system. . . . If we do this, we will rebuild our country in a way that will allow us to grow. If we don’t do it, we will be in decline, because the productivity of this country is dependent on young people that are equipped to be able to work hard….Immigrants create far more businesses than native-born Americans over the last 20 years. Immigrants are more fertile, and they love families and they have more intact families.
Even if these things were true, what does saying them in this way mean about Jeb Bush’s perspective and thought patterns?
It means he sees people as lab rats, not as moral actors, and he thinks the remedies we need involve rearranging our demographics, not changing our environment of education, regulation, or entitlement.
It doesn’t seem to occur to him to ask why Americans who used to be stunningly entrepreneurial, and so family oriented that Europeans have for decades made fun of us, are markedly less so today. As a statesman and public policy-maker, that ought to concern him. He ought to have a moral perspective on it, a perspective that entails caring about the people who may have lost their drive and their first love – a perspective that asks what is wrong with government and institutions, when people who used to be such a colossal engine of hope and ingenuity for the world have lost their edge.
Aside from the manifest reality that America is still stuffed to the gills with native-born entrepreneurs and strong families, Jeb’s lack of interest in moral causes and actual people is a red flag for me.
If he thinks native-born Americans are irredeemable, what does he expect to do with all of us, after he brings in the immigrants? And what’s he going to do when the same educational and regulatory impediments that discourage many of our native-born Americans today discourage the immigrants themselves tomorrow?
Hand those immigrants’ children over for 12-16 years to the scions of the Frankfurt School, Jeb, and see how they turn out.
America’s comparative advantage today is real, if limited: we’re still a bit more consistent than the rest of the world in terms of government transparency and the rule of law. The American people are open, generous, and tolerant, not clannish, nepotistic, or stratified. Immigrants feel all that as an advantage when they get here.
But the main thing the most productive, family-oriented of native-born Americans feel today is our loss of freedom. The day is rapidly approaching when the two trajectories will intersect, and even immigrants won’t, on average, be coming here to be entrepreneurs.
You can’t have that discussion with Jeb Bush, though. He seems to be a nice enough guy, but for political purposes – which is what counts here – he appears to be the ultimate “establishment” guy: uninterested in how the boutique policies of special interests have brought about the dismantling of the middle class, and determined to simply import a new, lower middle class – one that starts with lower expectations – so that nothing has to change for the institutional managers.
Put this all together, and recognize that Jeb Bush is pursuing an aggressive, hardball campaign to get the nomination next year, in order to push what he seems to see as a form of pragmatism. He, or at least those running his campaign, clearly wants this to be the banner of the Republican Party. The enemy they see is the conservative base – and that’s who they’re going after.