2016: The GOP’s Four Faces

Jeb Van Winkle

In the famous Washington Irving story, Rip Van Winkle awakens from a twenty-year sleep to discover the Revolutionary War had taken place while he dozed. People trying to understand why Jeb Bush’s campaign is floundering should keep that story in mind.

Bush has, in effect, awakened from a ten year plus political sleep to discover America has changed. His difficulties are directly tied to his inability so far to adapt to the changed environment.

If this seems harsh, consider the facts. Jeb has not run for office since his easy re-election in 2002. He has not had a tight, competitive race since 1998, and he has not run in a GOP primary since 1994. When Jeb ran his tough races, his brother had not yet won the Presidency; 9/11 had not happened; economic growth was both plentiful and widely shared. Latino immigration had not yet reached the level that has sparked the immigration wars of the last decade, and the Republican base had not exploded in anger over the sense that its leadership, including his brother, had betrayed them time and time again.

And, of course, Barack Obama had not yet been elected. Obama’s ambitious agenda has moved the country much farther to the left than when Bush was active in politics.

One can see how Bush has struggled with these changes time and time again. His two policy passions seem to be education and immigration reform. These were state of the art conservative priorities in 2000 when W ran, but have long since stopped being animating features of the movement. NCLB is widely derided on the right and Common Core is seen as the further federalization of education in the same vein as his brother’s landmark effort. Doubling down on these priorities, as Bush has done, has simply reinforced the notion that he is running on yesterday’s platform.

His difficulties in dealing with his brother’s post-9/11 legacy also underscore his belated political re-entry. There’s no sense that he has used the lessons of the intervening decade to inform his foreign policy thinking. Instead, his team of foreign policy advisors are largely culled from the past two Bush Administrations. It’s like he’s one of the Blues Brothers whose best idea is to bring back the band.

His response to the changes in the nation’s economy are similarly stuck in an intellectual time warp. Most Americans have not had a real rise in income since the late 1990’s. Bush’s slogan, “The Right to Rise,” seems to be responsive to that, but his prescriptions so far are simply increasing the doses of the medicine his brother prescribed fifteen years ago. Bush’s tax plan is his brother’s on steroids, with larger cuts in the top rate and in corporate taxes. Instead of the expanded child tax credits W endorsed, Jeb plans to help the working class with a near doubling of the standard deduction, but the principle is the same: cut rates for the rich and everyone will be better off. The economics are sound, but are the politics?

Jeb’s problems are perhaps best seen by looking at his tone. Republicans, even those in the somewhat conservative camp whose votes are key for anyone to be nominated, are angry. They want someone who can lead, and that means they want someone who can articulate conservative principles and take the fight to the Democrats. Bush’s steady, Mr. Nice Guy persona is totally genuine, but it seems out of step with the demands of a now-volatile GOP electorate. Successful politicians need to be adaptable: his father did this in 1988 when he transformed himself from a man widely seen as too patrician and wimpy to win to someone who battled then-CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather on television and ran a blue-collar populist campaign to upend the starchy Michael Dukakis. Instead of learning from his family, Jeb seems to be displaying the legendary Bush stubbornness, harming his effort in the process.

The data show how these factors limit Bush’s appeal and have prevented him from building on his strengths. Bush was at his high point in the early summer shortly after his announcement. Even then, his support was highly tilted in favor of moderates and liberals rather than conservatives. The CNN/ORC poll from late June, for example, had Bush getting 19 percent of the total vote but only 12 percent of conservatives. A FOX poll taken at nearly the same time had Bush at 15 percent, while getting only 5 percent among Tea Partiers and 13 percent among all brands of conservative. 

Poll from early-mid July echoed these findings. A PPP poll, for example, showed Bush receiving 12 percent overall, but only 5 percent among the third of the party who are “very conservative”. His support rose to a mere ten percent among the crucial “somewhat conservatives,” but skyrocketed to 19 percent among moderates and 35 percent among the tiny number of liberals who plan to vote in the GOP primaries. PPP also asked a name ID question, and it too found favorable opinions of Jeb rose the less conservative one was.

Jeb’s slide since then is largely because he has lost much moderate support. The most recent PPP poll, for example, found his support and favorable ratings down from the summer much more among moderates and liberals than among conservatives. Recent FOX and CNN/ORC polls also show this trend.

At the time I labeled Jeb’s kickoff speech “Republican Vanilla,” too bland to attract primary voters from either his moderate left or his very conservative right. I pondered whether someone like John Kasich could run to Jeb’s left, cutting into his margin among moderates and thereby denying him the New Hampshire win he so desperately needs. The most recent PPP poll in New Hampshire shows is exactly what has happened. 

PPP has Bush and Kasich running even, Kasich getting 10 percent and Bush getting 9. They both do worst among Tea Partiers (0 percent for Bush, 1 percent for Kasich) and best among moderates and liberals (13 percent for Bush, 19 percent for Kasich). Kasich’s run to the center is peeling away potential Bush supporters in droves, costing Jeb crucial support in a state he must win to have a chance.

Mike Murphy, the head of Jeb’s Super PAC, has claimed the 45 days between February 1 and March 15 is when Jeb will start to rise. Nevertheless, Right to Rise has been advertising in New Hampshire for over a month, to little effect. It has also released an ad recently that is said to be part of a $25 million buy. This would be fine and good if money alone moved election, but if money alone worked Rudy Giuliani and John Connally would have won the nomination. In the end, money only works if the message is right, and Republican Vanilla just doesn’t look to the GOP’s flavor of the month.

After an unsettling readjustment, Rip Van Winkle ended up pretty much on easy street. His daughter took him in and he got to spend his old age relaxing with his grandkids. Without a major campaign readjustment – which means more than cutting the campaign’s burn rate and going after some of his challengers – Jeb, sadly, looks likely to follow the same path.

Henry Olsen — Mr. Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, an editor at UnHerd.com, and the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism.

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