Jeb Bush’s most famous, or infamous, remark of the campaign season was that a Republican candidate must be willing to “lose the primary” in order to win the general election. For the most part, Bush has campaigned like he meant what he said: He’s defended his positions on immigration reform and Common Core, though they’re unpopular with much of the Republican base, and he angered conservatives on Capitol Hill by pushing for a confirmation vote on Attorney General Loretta Lynch, which some were trying to hold up at the time.
But in the week leading up to the first Republican debate on Thursday, some saw the first rightward shifts in Bush’s policy. Bush remains in second place in the vast majority of national polls, but he will obviously need to win over more voters to capture the nomination. That could prove challenging for a candidate who consistently posts poor favorability ratings with Republican voters, sometimes even lower than Donald Trump’s. Some say the apparent ideological shift is an attempt to change that.
“I think he’s attempting to do two things at once: He wants to be seen as kind of the adult in the room who’s operating in shades of gray and is a real leader as opposed to Donald Trump,” says a top Republican strategist. “But at the same time I think he knows that he needs to make himself more attractive to conservatives.”
Bush may have begun that quest. In a question-and-answer session at the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce summer conference on Saturday, where Bush addressed about 450 top Republican donors, he told Politico’s Mike Allen that he would not strike a deal that raised taxes in exchange for spending cuts. Three years ago, as the government approached the so-called fiscal cliff, congressional Democrats offered Republicans just that deal. At that time, Bush said he supported the notion of trading spending cuts for tax increases.
“If you could bring to me a majority of people to say that we’re going to have $10 in spending cuts for $1 of revenue enhancement — put me in, coach,” Bush told a group of bipartisan lawmakers. That was also in the midst of the 2012 presidential election, when the proposal was roundly rejected by all of the Republican presidential candidates. Bush said his embrace of the compromise measure would prove “I’m not running for anything.”
A spokesman for Bush, Tim Miller, declined to address the governor’s apparent change of heart but says that his record on taxes is “unimpeachable.” He points to Bush’s two terms as governor of Florida, where he cut taxes every year, and says that as president, Bush would push for “pro-growth tax reform that lowers rates.”
What irks conservatives is that when Bush was out of public life, he popped his head up not to help battle President Obama, but to scold his own party.
Conservatives today don’t dispute that. What irks them is that when Bush was out of public life, he popped his head up not to help battle President Obama, but to scold his own party — and that at times he sounds like a different man now that he’s running for office.
Bush has carefully defended his support for Common Core, the national education standards that have been adopted by most states but which are opposed by many on the right. But at New Hampshire’s First in the Nation Voters Forum on Monday evening, and then in Thursday’s debate last week, many were surprised to hear him say, unequivocally, that the federal government should play no role in the creation of educational standards. In New Hampshire, he told the crowd that “states ought to create standards.”
Miller says there has been no change in Bush’s position. And while that may technically be true — the Common Core standards were created by a group of governors and educators, not by the federal government, and they were never technically mandated by the feds — Bush’s rhetoric on the subject has certainly changed.
The standards became controversial when the Obama administration rewarded states with federal dollars for adopting “college and career-ready standards.” Since the easiest way to meet those standards was to adopt Common Core, critics charged that states were essentially being coerced. The American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Hess has written that “the hurried campaign to make the Common Core a quasi-national enterprise has undermined the venture’s promise in profound and debilitating ways” and called the effort a “back-door way for the federal government to exert tremendous influence over education.”
Common Core’s most vocal defenders, Bush included, haven’t exactly blanched at these charges. Former D.C. public-school chancellor Michelle Rhee put it this way: “I’ve heard some recent rumblings from folks who say we don’t like it when the federal government is telling us what to do. . . . You know what you should not like? The fact that China is kicking our butts right now.”
Jeb Bush shared the dais with Rhee that evening in 2012 at the Mackinac Policy Conference in Lansing, Mich., and sounded a supportive note, calling the standards clear and straightforward. “Do not pull back,” he said. “Please do not pull back on Common Core standards.” Before he was running for president, Bush also denounced some of his fellow Republicans, including Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, for changing their minds on the issue. “I just don’t feel compelled to run for cover when I think this is the right thing to do for our country,” Bush told Fox News in April 2014, long before he declared his own candidacy.
#related#Some say that’s precisely what he’s doing now. In the words of the top GOP strategist, Bush is figuring out “how to be more sellable to the voters.”
Others, though, including some conservatives, say that Bush has always been a keen policy thinker and that examining the subtle shifts in his positions misses the point. “The question for Jeb is whether he understands and is willing to take on the bipartisan forces in Washington that work to preserve the status quo and take big, transformative ideas and make them small,” says Michael Needham, the CEO of Heritage Action, the activist arm of the Heritage Foundation. “I think he has and always has had good conservative policy instincts.”
Bush will certainly have achieved a victory if he can persuade his skeptics of that.
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor for National Review.