Politics & Policy

Jeb Bush Starts His Pitch

(Bill Pugliano/Getty)
Will he follow up new rhetoric with proposals that might worry the establishment?

Is Jeb Bush a risk taker? Will his all-but-certain 2016 candidacy offer new ideas, and will he, a son of the Republican political establishment, take on some entrenched interests in order to implement them?

In remarks at the Detroit Economic Club on Wednesday, Bush, a top-tier candidate in the early presidential going, offered an answer: Maybe.

The former Florida governor laid out the contours of what he called “the defining challenge of our time” — a growing “opportunity gap” and six years of economic stagnation — and called for the Republican party to turn its attention to the middle class and the poor. Detroit itself, mired in bankruptcy, is a symbol of that decline.

Bush was himself — serious, sober, and stiff — as he pledged to offer a “new vision” and a “plan of action” that departs from the one that’s been on offer the past six years from the White House — and mainstream Washington Republicans.

But the speech was heavy on lofty phrases and light on specific details. Those will have to wait: He promised “a mix of smart policies and reforms” in the coming months.

“I’m not sure the average person listening to that speech would’ve thought wow, this person is a really different kind of Republican,” says Jim Pethokoukis, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributor to National Review Online. “There wasn’t anything startling there in substance.”

The challenge for Bush will be to offer enough specificity without going too far and allowing his policy proposals to be picked apart by his primary rivals. And, in attempting to embrace the “reform conservative” label — Bush called for “reform everywhere, especially in our government” — he is covering ground already trod by some of his potential primary opponents.

The tone was right, says Arthur Brooks of AEI, which is home to a number of reformocon thinkers and writers. It was “positive and opportunity focused, without harshness or bitterness,” he says. “Reform conservatism means a lot of things to different people, but Jeb is definitely sounding both conservative and reformist.”

Bush hinted at the idea that he might be lagging behind a few competitors on the policy front. “I am getting involved in politics again,” he said, “because that’s where the work has to begin.” Some of his potential competitors haven’t taken a break. Florida senator Marco Rubio, for instance, whose political career Bush helped foster, has hashed out detailed policy proposals on issues from tax reform and education to welfare and national defense.

In fact, the “opportunity gap” is a phrase Rubio used, and started mooting solutions to, in 2012. The social scientist Scott Winship, who is often identified with reform conservativism, has said that Rubio’s proposals constitute “the most comprehensive reformocon agenda to date.”

And Rubio isn’t alone: Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, as a sitting governor, has established a think tank, America Next, and used it to churn out detailed policy memos.

As he articulates his vision, Bush will also have to reassure conservatives, including some of the donors he’s courting, that he takes seriously concerns about his candidacy and that he is capable of being a candidate for the party’s rank-and-file, too.

The tension between the two priorities was on display Wednesday: After addressing the struggles of the middle class and the poor in Detroit, Bush was set to travel to a series of fundraisers in Chicago, one at the swanky Chicago Club, where tickets were going for $1,000 apiece.

Jeb also has some views, most prominently on immigration, that have endeared him more to donors than to primary voters. On the Common Core national education standards, which also put him at odds with the party’s base, he hasn’t done much to address the divide. Education scholar Frederick Hess wrote last year that Bush’s support for the standards has “threatened to transform education from an asset [for his candidacy] into an albatross.” Bush has “thus far failed to reassure conservatives that he takes seriously their concerns about federal overreach when it comes to the Common Core,” Hess said.

At the same time, Bush was a successful two-term governor of a swing state. He has a reputation as a man who understands and likes the policymaking process. He has access to and credibility with donors; he may be well equipped to push back against the establishment on issues such as taxes and education, where entrenched interests and powerful lobbies carry a lot of sway.

Bush’s team is committed to letting Jeb be Jeb. His address in Detroit gave some indication of what that will mean for his impending campaign.How he fills in the details will help determine whether it’s a winning one.

— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.

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