Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush-AP Photo/El Nuevo Herald, Hector Gabino
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush. (Associated Press Photo/El Nuevo Herald, Hector Gabino)

The widespread conservative media freak-out over Jeb Bush’s potential candidacy mostly centered on his — horrors! — comments expressing empathy for those who come illegally to the U.S. seeking a better life for their families.

Former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour slyly pointed out to these folks, who venerate Ronald Reagan, that this is the sort of thing the Gipper would say:

The former governor recalled asking what Reagan meant by the gates test and said his reply was: “’The gates test: Drop all the gates everywhere in the world and see which way people run. They run to America.’”

“And that’s what Jeb is saying to me, that this is the place, for good reason,” Barbour said. “And we ought to be proud of it, that when you apply the gates test, that people want to come here.”

“That message has the benefit of being true,” Barbour added. “Whether everybody will take that same [tack], that’s neither here nor there.It’s very similar to what Ronald Reagan thought.”

But something else is going on here. Some conservative media figures accused Jeb Bush of fearing the parry and thrust of political campaigning. Where’d they get that from? This is what he actually said, according to the original report in the New York Times:

He said he would decide by the end of the year, in part on whether he thinks he could avoid “the vortex of a mud fight” with a “hopeful” message.

“We need to elect candidates that have a vision that is bigger and broader, and candidates that are organized around winning the election, not making a point,” Mr. Bush told an audience at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum. “Campaigns ought to be about listening and learning and getting better. I do think we’ve lost our way.” He added, “I’m not being critical of my party, but campaigns themselves are reflective of this new America.”

That’s not saying he fears a fight; it’s saying he wants to do more than throw spitballs at opponents. Oh, the shame! Even worse, he’s previously said he would run only if he could do so with “joy” in his heart. Now where does a guy get off talking about “joy” in politics, huh?

And that is the source of a difference other than immigration between some in the conservative media and Jeb Bush. The  former have come to identify anger as the default political vibe and paranoia as the appropriate attitude toward government. You heard it in the speeches at the Conservative Political Action Conference. You hear it on talk radio, and read it in the most conservative blogs. They’re listening to your calls, rants Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). The government is becoming a tyranny. The immigrants will make you poorer. Often the claims are factually wrong, yet always asserted with huge emotion. Even when there is truth to the complaints (e.g. the administration misled us on Benghazi, the president didn’t tell the truth about Obamacare), the attacks become the totality of the message. It is all “Obama did. . . ” and “The establishment is telling you. . . ”

Some of the confrontational rhetoric is part and parcel with being in the opposition. But in the evolution of the tea party and the inside-the-Beltway opportunists who claimed ownership of the movement, tone — not substance — became the dividing line between them and the “establishment.” To be one of the them — and hence to be a “real” conservative — one had to feel betrayed, angry, suspicious and victimized by not only liberals but also Republican leaders. It is not enough to agree with them on policy, you have to have been with them in the shared experience of anger, a participant in each twist and turn in the Obama scandals.

Why? The GOP is presumably looking for a conservative, competent standard-bearer to beat the Democrats, undo the damage wrought by Obama and set a course for effective conservative governance. Where does all this tribalism, the insistence on shared fury come from? Maybe it’s a function of the conservative echo chamber in which every issue and emotion gets amplified as it bounces from like-minded conservative to like-minded conservative. Perhaps it is the shared memory of too many Republicans who let them down (from George H.W. Bush to Supreme Court justices). Whatever the origin, however, it leaves Jeb Bush as a man apart.

Jeb Bush is one of the least angry men in public life. He’s calm and cheery, sometimes wry in humor. But he’s not angry; he just wants to change things (e.g. education, immigration). Maybe that is not going to cut it in today’s GOP. But consider for a moment whether a demeanor devoid of anger and victimization is one more likely to attract an electoral majority. It is a truism that, with the exception of Richard Nixon, the presidential candidate perceived as the “nicer” guy wins the race. Reagan’s sunny outlook was preferable to the dour Jimmy Carter. Bill Clinton, with his good ol’ boy charm, was infinitely more attractive to voters than Bush 41 or the scowling Bob Dole. George W. Bush was the guy you wanted to have a beer with, not the self-important and stiff Al Gore or the pompous John Kerry.

Maybe in 2016 it will be the candidate without rancor, not the candidate carrying around the grievances of the preceding eight years, who will find favor with the voters. It’s far from clear that the American people are pining for an angry ideologue to follow the testy ideologue now in the White House. That person might be Jeb Bush, or it might be someone else. But I’d suggest that the defining characteristic for the party’s nominee should not be the shared experience of bitterness in the Obama years. It’s not like Americans to carry a grudge; they’ve again and again shown themselves to be forward-looking and optimistic. The tribalistic impulse is a self-defeating one for Republicans, and whether or not Jeb Bush runs they should redirect their not unreasonable frustration, disappointment and even anger over the country’s direction. Finding a winning candidate is the best revenge.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.