When Jeb Bush said last December that the Republican nominee would have to be willing to “lose the primary to win the general without violating your principles,” it sounded like either a starkly realistic assessment of the dynamics of Republican presidential politics or an awfully naïve statement of what was actually possible for a Republican candidate. Most observers — myself included — thought that he’d have no choice but to mirror the anger of committed Republican voters. As the candidate perceived by base voters and the most moderate of the contenders, he’d have to go through the same ritual that Mitt Romney did — genuflection to the right.
But so far, it doesn’t seem to be happening. Bush is offering a kinder, gentler conservatism than the other candidates — not in substance, but in tone. And even though he’s trailing Donald Trump in the polls, at this point it looks like his strategy might just pay off.
Let’s be clear about one thing: Jeb Bush is very, very conservative. His answers to almost every policy question are firmly within today’s Republican consensus. He wants a belligerent foreign policy, tax cuts and slashing of regulations, a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, raising the eligibility age for Medicare and possibly voucherizing the program, and so on. Even on immigration, Bush favors a path to “legal status” that would allow the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country to stay, but wouldn’t allow them to become citizens.
But Bush isn’t trying to sound mad, and he doesn’t seem particularly spooked by the Trump candidacy. He was candid in condemning Trump’s remarks about Mexican immigrants, and just did an interview with Telemundo — in Spanish — where he talked about how his family speaks Spanish at home, and about bigotry his children have faced. In an interview published today, he admits that human activity contributes to climate change, though like any good Republican he doesn’t actually want to do anything about it.
What this all adds up to is a candidate who in substance is almost indistinguishable from other Republicans, but sounds very different in tone. And what are the results? One way to look at it is that Bush can’t seem to break out. He’s been surpassed in the polls by Donald Trump, but he hasn’t really fallen — the Huffpost Pollster average has him at 13.9 percent, about where he’s been since people started polling this race.
But none of the other candidates have broken out, either. Trump, Bush, and Scott Walker are the only ones who ever score in double digits. Candidates who at various times were thought to have great potential, like Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz, don’t seem to be going anywhere. They’re trying desperately to find ways to get noticed — Paul takes a chainsaw to the tax code, Cruz calls Mitch McConnell a liar, Mike Huckabee compares President Obama to Hitler — but none of it seems to work.
If you’re Bush, your path to victory looks like this: Trump soaks up all the attention for a while, but eventually gets bored (and hasn’t bothered to mount an actual campaign that can deliver votes), and either fades or just packs it in. Meanwhile, the conservative vote is split. Once the voting starts, the failing candidates will begin to fall away one by one. But by the time most of them are gone and their supporters have coalesced around a single candidate like Scott Walker, it’s too late — Jeb has built his lead and is piling up delegates, has all the money in the world, and can vanquish that last opponent on his way to the convention in Cleveland.
It sounds perfectly plausible. And if it happens that way, the party’s conservatives will have the next chapter in their long narrative of betrayal already written. Once again, they’ll say, the establishment foisted a moderate on a party that didn’t want him, and the result was disaster. If only they had nominated a true conservative, then victory would have been theirs.
Unless, of course, Bush’s entire theory about winning the general by being prepared to lose the primary is correct, and he ends up gaining the White House. Either way — at least for the moment — it doesn’t seem like such a bad idea for Jeb Bush to keep sounding like a nice guy, and keep a lid on the most embarrassing pandering to the right wing.