Earlier this month former Florida governor Jeb Bush spoke at the conservative Manhattan Institute think tank awards dinner. His speech (starting at the 10:20 mark) is worth viewing in full, but there are some noteworthy aspects that provide insight into what a Jeb Bush campaign would look like.
Bush is a wonk almost in a class by himself — citing Friedrich Hayek, the “broken windows” theory and the state pension crisis foretold by Steve Malanga — an indication that he reads, thinks about the big issues and then (as governor and now an education reformer) tries to apply them. Although Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is similar in that regard, Bush is a more relaxed and jovial figure. Indeed, his demeanor throughout the speech is exceptionally cheery, both in his optimism about the potential for reform and in his obvious delight in talking “shop” with other conservative intellectuals.
As for the substance of the speech, he shies away from the doomsday talk about America but is honest about our challenges. ( “The United States is in trouble. Our country is no longer the most socially and economically mobile country in the world. Far from it. . . . Seventy percent of those born [among] the bottom 40 percent of Americans will be stuck there for their entire lives. The American dream is slowly being replaced by something economists call ‘stickiness at the ends.’ Those born wealthy will stay there in many cases. And those born poor will do the same. And those in the middle, the group that has defined who we are as a nation for two centuries, are shrinking and they’re feeling the squeeze.”) This is the core theme of his speech, and one can imagine, would be the message for his campaign if he runs in 2016.
He avoids buzzwords, labels and references to the Framers. Audiences either know all the usual conservative rhetoric already or they don’t much care; his speech is rhetorically non-ideological but in substance very conservative.
First, he rejects mindless redistribution of wealth. (“If our people are not rising, our nation will not rise. There are those who believe the solution is as simple as taking more from the successful and doling out the proceeds to the less successful. It doesn’t work that way, and it never has. The federal government has spent $15 trillion on anti-poverty programs in the 50 years since President Johnson declared the War on Poverty. … By some estimates, when you include in state and local money, we now spend nearly $1 trillion a year on poverty and income assistance programs. Yet, the percentage of people living in poverty has remained flat for 40 years and we are seeing increasing intergenerational poverty.”) He calls it a “crisis of opportunity.”
Second, he stresses the centrality of a growing private economy. He notes that if we could just boost our economic growth by 2 percent more than predicted, we would create the equivalent of the entire German economy, bringing in $4.7 trillion more in economic activity over 10 years. (Even Mayor Bill de Blasio, Elizabeth Warren, Barack Obama and “all your favorite progressives,” he says, can’t come up with “exotic” tax plans to get enough revenue to achieve a fraction of that.) He explains why conservative policies (regulation needs to be outcome-based and more practical; lower and both pro-growth and pro-family taxes) work: “As George Gilder has eloquently written, on taxes and societal rules, the less the noise, the greater the acceleration of innovation occurs, which is the source of sustained economic growth.” He wants to reform entitlement reforms but doesn’t focus on the cost savings. Rather, he says, the runaway entitlement spending crowds out useful spending on infrastructure and basic research. Together with an endorsement of a domestic energy policy (“We could lead the world”), he gives a nod to Ryan, who has been slammed for talking about the inner-city social breakdown. “The one thing that we know is . . . a loving family taking care of their children in a traditional marriage will create the chance to break out of poverty far better, far better than any of the government programs that have been created,” Bush says.
On immigration reform, he departs from his remarks with a compelling riff on the American dream: “To create the sustained economic growth model we need to fix our broken immigration system and rebuild one that is economically driven and true to our immigrant heritage. . . . This country is special in so many ways, and one of the reasons is that we have a set of values that defines national identity. Not where we came from, whether it’s in Florida or New York or some far-off land, but a set of shared of values. And the rules are you come to this country, you pursue your dreams, you create value for yourself and your families and others and great things happen to you and to our country. Why would we ignore that at a time when we need to restart and rejuvenate our economy? It makes no sense to me.” Reverting to his text, he reels off some data: “Once settled, immigrants start more businesses, they form more families, they have more children, they have a higher percentage home ownership than their native-born counterparts.” He says immigration reform is a “significant part of the solution” to a high-growth strategy.
On education, his passion comes through as he extols the crowd that “nothing, nothing is more critical” than a “wholesale transformation of our education system.” Even Vietnam’s students now do better on international tests on math and science than Americans, chiding those who say poverty is the cause of America’s poor school results. “Come on. God has given every child the ability to learn. It is up to us to organize ourselves in a 21st-century way to assure that they do. And if we do that, this country will take off. This country will soar.” He says the key is to focus on what goes on in the classroom and that the consequences of not doing this are tragic:
Students who drop out of school without achieving a high school diploma are likelier to possess a lifelong dependency on government; likelier to be unable to provide for their families and likelier to end up in our correctional system.
Thankfully, there are proven reforms that are being implemented in growing pockets throughout our nation that we know work.
Key to improving education is the widespread embrace of more accountability, not less; more school choice, not less; the end of social promotion, across the board . . . and higher academic standards.
He makes clear that we must insist on “high, lofty standards,” he says. With an eye toward the anti-Common Core fanatics, he says that “whether they are Common Core state or higher standards in general, we cannot pull back and dilute and dumb down our standards.”
Bush is best when he is off-script, for example, in his decrying social promotion, “this insidious idea that we are worried about the self-esteem of little Johnny rather than whether he can read.” (“We are so politically correct in our country that we can’t change that, even that?”) He comes across therefore as less canned than many other politicians. This can be a great benefit, but also a danger. As every nervous campaign director will tell you, off-script means the potential for gaffes and controversy. If he runs in 2016, however, it would be a mistake to rein Jeb Bush in and tie him to talking points. His appeal, risks and all, is that he is comfortable and confident in his own skin. And he has interesting things to say.