Politics

Jeb Bush and the GOP Donor Problem

Anti-base politics can defeat 2016 nominee.

By 4.24.14

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Donald Trump looked out over the audience of New Hampshire conservative activists and mentioned the name “Jeb Bush.” On April 12, the Hill reported the reaction this way:

“You know, I heard Jeb Bush the other day,” he said, with quiet boos and angry murmurs erupting from the crowd at the mention of Bush’s name.

“And he was talking about people that come into this country illegally, they do it for love,” he continued, with the boos growing louder.

Trump added, to laughter from the crowd: “And I said, say it again I didn’t get — that’s one I’ve never heard before … I understand what he’s saying, but, you know, it’s out there.”

Bush drew considerable conservative backlash when he made the comments in a recent interview, but defended them at a Connecticut Republican Party dinner on Thursday, where he further urged “sensitivity to the immigrant experience.”

Fifteen days earlier, on March 29, the Washington Post headlined this story:

Influential Republicans working to draft Jeb Bush into 2016 presidential race

This story began as follows: 

LAS VEGAS — Many of the Republican Party’s most powerful insiders and financiers have begun a behind-the-scenes campaign to draft former Florida governor Jeb Bush into the 2016 presidential race, courting him and his intimates and starting talks on fundraising strategy.…

Many if not most of 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s major donors are reaching out to Bush and his confidants with phone calls, e-mails and invitations to meet, according to interviews with 30 senior Republicans. One bundler estimated that the “vast majority” of Romney’s top 100 donors would back Bush in a competitive nomination fight.

“He’s the most desired candidate out there,” said another bundler, Brian Ballard, who sat on the national finance committees for Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008. “Everybody that I know is excited about it.”

And then there’s this story, from just yesterday. As reported over at The Washington Examiner on April 23. The headline?

Tea Party claims first victory of 2014

Tea Party candidate Curt Clawson won the Republican primary in the special election seat to replace Rep. Trey Radel, R-Fla., who resigned after pleading guilty for cocaine possession, a victory that the Tea Party Express is claiming as “the movement's first victory of 2014.”

Clawson received 46 percent of the vote, according to Naples News. “The results tonight were clear, Curt Clawson's Tea Party message of economic growth and fiscal responsibility resonated with the voters of Southwest Florida,” said political strategist Sal Russo of the Tea Party Express, which was one of the first Tea Party groups to support Clawson.

“It was exactly that kind of platform that fueled Republican victories in 2010 and 2012, and we’re starting 2014 with another decisive victory here tonight. Curt’s success sends a clear message to candidates across the country: you win elections by campaigning in bold colors, not pale pastels, as President Reagan once famously said.”

In sum, these three stories tell the tale of the GOP’s problem. Jeb Bush — the Establishment personified — is being pushed by all manner of GOP donors, insiders, and the party’s consulting class. Yet mere mention of Bush's name at a New Hampshire gathering grassroots conservative activists elicited a chorus of boos. Notably, Bush himself was nowhere in evidence at this event attended by several prospective 2016 GOP nominees. An event composed of the activist base of the Republican Party.

If the Republican Party Establishment isn’t careful, it will blow yet another presidential election. As this poll by YouGov/Economist indicates, published yesterday at Breitbart, 47 percent of Americans don’t want Jeb to run, a mere 15 percent say yes to a Jeb run, and 38 percent are undecided.

Jeb Bush’s problem isn’t really that his last name is Bush. The problem is that the Bush name has become synonymous with the GOP Establishment and a narrow, rigid adherence to moderation. The problem in fact took root in the long-ago and faraway of the Bush 41 presidency, when the decision was made to replace conservatism — the conservatism that elected Ronald Reagan twice in a landslide and carried his vice president to yet another landslide as “Reagan’s heir” — with the already losing idea of moderation.

As Paul Kengor has vividly illustrated in his new book 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative, “Reagan continually explained to his fellow citizens….how the principles of conservatism were essential to a successful democratic republic.” This approach was quite publicly rejected by the new President Bush, most infamously in the breaking of his “read-my-lips-no-new-taxes” pledge. Ditto his nomination of liberal David Souter to the Supreme Court. As we have mentioned before, by December of 1990 — with two years yet to run on his term — Bush was being abandoned wholesale by the GOP’s Reaganite base. Notably conservative activist Richard Viguerie took to the op-ed pages of the New York Times to pen a piece titled “Bush Loses the Right Wing.” Taking on the president for “heading into a civil war with GOP conservatives,” Viguerie wrote these telling words:

Republicans depend on the conservative movement for volunteers, contributors and organizational expertise. When that base is disillusioned and angry because party leaders keep backing away from its core constituency in favor of those whose policies and life-style do not represent established GOP values and traditions, the party is in deep trouble.

And so it was that the Bush “brand,” as it were, became indelibly identified with the losing “me-too” strategy of GOP moderation. Like clockwork this induced the Buchanan challenge in the GOP primaries, the third party candidacy of Ross Perot, and President Bush’s stunningly poor showing — he received only 37.5 percent of the vote in 1992. Notably, in addition to losing by almost 6 points to Bill Clinton, Bush’s moderate brand of Republicanism lost almost 19 points to Perot. It isn’t rocket science to realize that a good many of those Perot voters were from precisely the disaffected Reagan conservative base that Viguerie had predicted — two years earlier — were fleeing the Bush brand. (And notably, Viguerie’s reference to “life-style” had nothing to do with the politics of gay marriage, still long distant as an issue in American politics.)

By the time 2000 rolled around, John McCain made the stunningly bad decision to run to George W. Bush’s left — making Bush the Reagan-like candidate by default. George W. carried the Bush brand of moderation — compassionate conservatism — into the election and managed to lose the popular vote to Al Gore while needing the Supreme Court to drag him over the White House threshold. After four years of “compassionate conservatism” and the deliberate rejection of Reagan’s principle of limited government in favor of things like No Child Left Behind, Bush had an unnecessarily close re-election. By 2006 the country was in open revolt against Bush moderation, the Congress was lost, and by 2008 nominee McCain, saddled with his own quirky moderation and Bush’s unpopularity, got clobbered. Or in other words, Bush moderation bequeathed the nation with Obama leftists.

Jeb Bush has done nothing but embrace all of this. And were he named Jeb Blue instead of Jeb Bush he would still have exactly the same problem. This is why Jeb was booed in New Hampshire. And the fact that GOP donors are flocking to him (as per the Washington Post) only underscores the point that the gulf between those donors and the GOP base is heading the party to a certain defeat in 2016.

Not to be left out here is Chris Christie. The New Jersey governor’s problem isn’t a scandal over a bridge, a scandal that seems to be as presented — staffers run amok without his knowledge. Christie’s problem is succinctly captured in his own words. These words:

I’m not in this business to have an academic conversation. I am not in this business to win the argument. I am in this business to win elections. If we want to just have arguments and stand for nothing, we could just form a university.

No. This is precisely wrong. In fact, it is exactly this view that results in…losing presidential elections. This is the thinking that made George H.W. Bush a one-term president, lost George W. Bush the popular vote and almost lost him re-election. Not to mention that it defeated Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney and…yes, Nixon in 1960, Thomas E. Dewey twice, and so on. (Nixon famously began his first debate with JFK by saying, “The things that Senator Kennedy has said many of us can agree with.” ) 

Just yesterday the Washington Post ran this story on Bob Dole, writing this of the 90-year old moderate’s “thank you” tour of Kansas, reporting it this way:

There are only two possible candidates he mentioned favorably on the first day of his tour — former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who he thinks could help win more Hispanic votes; and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, of whom he said, “I don’t think he knew what happened on the bridge.”… “I was one of the top supporters of President Reagan and had a pretty conservative record when I was in the Senate,” Dole said in the phone interview. “But he [Cruz] didn’t know any of that. He was just making a speech.” Asked what he would tell the young senator if Cruz came to see him, Dole said, “I’d tell him before he criticizes anyone or anything in the party, he ought to look at it first and get the facts.”

Senator Dole, a serious American hero who lost the use of his right arm in World War II, was, alas, never a Reaganite. His revision here on his Kansas thank-you tour leaves out the fact that it was he who persuaded President Reagan to raise excise taxes in return for a liberal promise of spending cuts — a promise that never came to pass. Dole repeatedly attacked Reaganomics, with Reagan biographer Steven Hayward noting that “Dole’s view was identical to Jimmy Carter’s.” Hayward notes that Dole “laid repeated roadblocks in the path of Reagan’s economic policy.” All true. And it caught up to Dole when he became the Establishment’s GOP nominee — and lost.

The GOP base isn’t in the business of winning elections that then lose the country. As Reagan himself put it in his 1989 farewell address to the country:

We've done our part. And as I walk off into the city streets, a final word to the men and women of the Reagan revolution, the men and women across America who for eight years did the work that brought America back. My friends: We did it. We weren’t just marking time. We made a difference. We made the city stronger, we made the city freer, and we left her in good hands. All in all, not bad, not bad at all.

This is the task in 2016. In fact? This is always the task. Not just to win an election — but to move the country forward once the election is won. To move it forward based on those principles that Paul Kengor has clearly identified as the core of Reagan’s conservatism: Freedom, Faith, Family, Sanctity and Dignity of Human Life, American Exceptionalism, The Founders’ Wisdom and Vision, Lower Taxes, Limited Government, Peace Through Strength, Anti-communism and Belief in the Individual.

Politically speaking? The GOP base has a keen understanding of which GOP candidates are serious about these principles — and which are not. And when that sense tells GOP base voters that they are not getting the real deal — they simply won’t be there. Why bother with voting for the “conservative” candidate when in fact, once in office, the “conservative” turns out to be simply a pale imitation of the candidate he defeated?

The hard political fact of life inside the GOP is that the base sees Establishment Republicans, as exemplified in that Post story about donors pushing for Jeb Bush, not as the solution but rather as part of the problem. They see a GOP consultant class whose main aim is making money regardless of whom they elect — contributing either way to exacerbating America’s Big Government addiction. An addiction that they believe is literally bankrupting the country. If the candidate runs as a moderate the base flees and the candidate loses. If the base sticks and the candidate wins — he or she arrives in Washington where they are instantly told they must go along with the Establishment’s latest push for what turns out to be Big Government-lite. Thus making the problems in Washington — not to mention the rest of the country — worse.

Doubtless this accounts for the Outside-the-Beltway appeal of Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Utah’s Senator Mike Lee, Alaska’s former governor Sarah Palin, and others. They are correctly seen as outsiders to the D.C. culture, people who really would shake up the town. The mention of their names brings cheers, not boos.

None are dependent on the culture. Indeed, the recent New York Times article headlined “Jeb Bush’s Rush to Make Money May Be Hurdle” illustrates precisely what Bush symbolizes. Whether involved with the collapsing Lehman Brothers Wall Street firm or sitting on the board of the starkly pro-Obamacare Tenet Health Care, a giant hospital owner — and Bush is supposed to be opposed — Bush’s choices consistently reflect a devotion to the culture of who one knows as opposed to the idea of a principle-driven government. His backers love to tout the fact that Bush, who like his father is the nice-guy’s nice guy, is fluent in Spanish. Missing the point entirely that if one is saying the wrong things in two languages the perception problem becomes worse, not better.

Advocating Common Core and its increasing federalization of education in Spanish is no better than advocating Common Core in English.

When one reads this statement in the Post story about Bush, describing him as “the most desired candidate out there” among GOP donors, with one bundler “who sat on the national finance committees for Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008” saying, “Everybody that I know is excited about it (a Jeb Bush candidacy),” it is no wonder Bush is drawing boos in New Hampshire. There were veritable platoons of “everybody I know” — i.e., rich GOP donors — insisting in 2008 and 2012 that McCain and Romney were sure things. Just as their predecessors believed the same about Dole. Then these same people sit around post-election and wonder why they lost — again. And after a deep breath set out to repeat the mistake. Sending forth candidates that try their best to talk the conservative talk but for one reason or another are unable to walk the conservative walk.

Reagan had a story he used to tell about folks like these. He put it this way:

Somehow they remind me of an incident which occurred early in World War II.

A shipload of canned fish was interned in an Italian port and, when finally released for sale, the cargo brought $25,000. It was then resold for $50,000 and, as the war years went on, that shipment of canned fish kept changing hands until, finally, it brought $600,000.

The last purchaser opened a can and tried the fish. Enraged, he got on the phone and demanded that something be done because the fish was spoiled. And he was told by the man who sold it to him, “But the fish isn’t for eating; it’s for selling!” Well, our fish is for eating.

The problem in 2016, just as it was when Ronald Reagan was taking on the GOP Establishment, is that there are too many who are out there with fish that isn’t for eating but for selling. And once sold, the American people find out they just bought something that is inedible.

Which is why there was no Dole, McCain, or Romney presidency. And why Bush 41 was defeated after one term, and Bush 43 had such a dicey entrance into the White House, a hard sell for re-election, and a departure with poll numbers so dismal they helped sink his would-be successor McCain — who, following the same moderate trail — had already gone a long way to welding his own political anchor that ultimately sank him.

On Tuesday a GOP Tea Party candidate won 46 percent of the vote in that multi-candidate Florida GOP primary. Said his Tea Party strategist of candidate Curt Clawson’s victory: “Curt’s success sends a clear message to candidates across the country: you win elections by campaigning in bold colors, not pale pastels, as President Reagan once famously said."

Bold colors or pale pastels.

It really isn’t difficult to grasp. As Ronald Reagan also said, the fish are for eating, not just for selling. As long as GOP donors are selling fish that the base of the GOP knows they can never eat, then the string of GOP losses will get longer in 2016.

And deservedly so.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.