Ethics & Public Policy Center

Jeb Bush, Vanilla Conservative

Published in National Review Online on June 17, 2015


Forrest Gump said that life is like a box of chocolates. Republican-nomination contests, however, tend to be a trip to Baskin-Robbins’ 31 flavors of ice cream. Most try to be accessible but different — the political versions of strawberry or chocolate. Some try harder to be more distinct: think of Mike Huckabee, for example, as the GOP’s Pralines & Cream or Ted Cruz as the Republican Americone Dream. But in the end, the winner always seems to be the candidate that most resembles America’s favorite flavor, vanilla.

Jeb Bush’s announcement Monday offered little in the way of specifics, but struck broad themes that will resonate with the vast majority of conservative Republicans. He believes “striving leads to success”. He wants to “get back on the side of free enterprise and free people”. His goal as president is to produce “4 percent growth.” He’s against “needless spending,” for “religious charities and their rights of conscience.”  He’s against the “Obama-Clinton-Kerry team”’s “phone-it-in foreign policy” and is for “rebuild[ing] our armed forces and tak[ing] care of our troops and our veterans”. You can trust him to do all of this because he has “executive experience”.

In short, he’s offering Republican vanilla.

There’s nothing wrong with Republican vanilla. I agree with every one of his statements, and I think most readers of this blog do too. There’s reason to wonder, however, if vanilla will prove to be as popular with both primary- and general-election voters in 2016 as it has in the past.

Start with the primary. The conservative movement post-Obama is more riled up than it has been since the pre-Reagan era. Vociferous, angry, feeling betrayed by the GOP leadership: movement conservatives of social, economic, and crypto-libertarian stripes all want more than traditional GOP vanilla. They want highly flavored, idiosyncratic candidates and Jeb’s vanilla does not satisfy their hunger. That’s why the most recent Fox national poll showed Jeb running fifth among self-described tea-party Republicans, tied with Donald Trump, and why the most recent Washington Post national poll shows Jeb getting only 2 percent of “very conservative” Republicans, behind Carly Fiorina and “None of these candidates.”

That means Jeb must do well among more centrist Republicans to win. Indeed, polls all year have consistently shown Jeb winning big among moderates and independents who plan to vote in the Republican primary. A GOP candidate can win the nomination as the overwhelming favorite among moderates; John McCain did that in 2008. But he can only do that if he is also the favorite among the largest group of Republican voters, the self-described “somewhat conservatives.”  Jeb is clearly aiming to satisfy their taste buds with “steady as she goes” Republican leadership while exciting moderates with his embrace of Hispanic voters and support for educational choice for the poor and the disabled. In a sense, he’s offering French Vanilla with some spicy Tahitian beans thrown in.

But moderates today might want a sharper candidate, too. Rand Paul is certainly that (I’ll let you pick the appropriate flavor), and polls show a set of moderate independents prefer him.  Moderates also tend to like strong personalities who ride the “Straight Talk Express”.  Ohio governor John Kasich, whose fervid support for Medicaid expansion has earned him the ire of tea-party fiscal conservatives, recently hired John Weaver and Fred Davis, strategists who worked for moderate Republican faves John McCain (2008) and Jon Huntsman (query – do they ever work for someone not named John?).  That suggests Kasich plans to run to Jeb’s left, a gambit that can only work if he plans to run a highly visible, aggressive, “flavored” campaign.  Given Bush’s abysmal showing among the most conservative Republicans, all these men have to do is cut deeply into Bush’s moderate support to deny him the nomination.

But suppose vanilla again is the GOP’s favorite flavor. Does that mean Bush is well positioned to win the general?

This is where Jeb’s early indications are very problematic. He clearly wants to win a much larger share of the Hispanic vote, and is relying on issues (relative moderation on immigration) and personal narrative (his wife is a Mexican native and he speaks Spanish fluently) to seal the deal. So his general election flavor looks to be Dulce de Leche. There are two problems with this: His economic policies turn Hispanics off and relying on Hispanics alone won’t get him the electoral votes he needs.

Bush’s economic program so far is so generically Republican it might even be tapioca.  He favors deregulation, unleashing exploration of energy resources in the U.S., and energizing the private sector. In service of the latter goal, he always returns to the same theme, reforming the tax code to broaden the tax base and lower tax rates. Or as he said in yesterday’s speech, “clearing out the special favors for the few, reducing rates for all”.

Polls show, however, that Hispanics do not think this is the best approach to create growth.  The Public Religion Research Institute’s 2013 Hispanic Values Survey, for example, asked which approach would produce more growth: lower taxes on individuals and businesses and pay for the tax cuts with lower government spending, or spend more in education and infrastructure and pay for it with higher taxes on people and business. Only 33 percent chose the first, conservative option. That’s six points more than voted for Mitt Romney, but Bush needs closer to 37–40 percent of the Hispanic vote to flip the key swing states of Colorado and Nevada.

Even that, however, wouldn’t be enough to put him in the White House. Hispanics make up enough of the electorate to matter in only three swing states: Florida, Colorado, and Nevada.  Even if one adds New Mexico to the mix, which his brother won very narrowly in 2004 but which Romney lost by ten points, would mean Hispanic-heavy potential swing states would only add 49 electoral votes to Mitt Romney’s 206. That’s 15 votes shy of the 270 needed to give him the narrowest possible majority. There’s simply no way for Jeb to win the White House without winning a larger share of the white vote in one of the other swing states — and arguing that tax cuts for all (but which will primarily benefit the rich) will produce enough growth to matter hasn’t helped a Republican win the popular vote since the Reagan era.

It’s still early. Jeb has left himself a lot of wiggle room in terms of policy specifics. Perhaps he’ll spice it up later this year. But if he doesn’t, his trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is likely to be a rocky road.

— Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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