Some pundits think Bush is a “fragile” front-runner because of his stance on immigration or Common Core. (Contrary to the assertions of some pundits, he has not backed down on Common Core, but he has clarified that it does not involve, and indeed he objects to, federal control of curriculum.) But polling suggests neither of these issues is a deal-breaker. Moreover, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is as supportive of immigration reform, has seen an increase of 15 points in the percentage of Republicans who would consider supporting him.
So is there a problem for Bush here, and if so, what is it?
On one hand, the ups and downs in campaigns are nothing new. In 2012, Mitt Romney saw the rise and fall of a series of challengers, and he batted down each one. If you take this view, Bush needs to keep doing what he is doing and let other challengers flame out.
But it is also possible, as we have suggested, that there has been too much emphasis up to now on roping in big donors and not enough on fighting spirit and emotional engagement with ordinary voters. Bush is not a great speech giver, even his most dogged supporters agree, and prefers a question-and-answer format or speaking off the cuff. But there, too, he can be descriptive rather than prescriptive. We know he thinks President Obama has let the Islamic State flourish, but how do we reverse that and what importance does he place on it?
There are ways in which Bush could better engage Republicans and better define his own stance and, as he puts it, what is in his heart.
The first is on executive power. Whether it is on immigration or on an unprecedented scheme to go to the United Nations and not Congress to impose a bad deal on Iran, Obama has engaged in executive overreach that would have made Richard Nixon blush. This is not a matter of arcane constitutional law; it is about whether a president can evade any and all restraints. That has to end if we are to restore any functionality in government and preserve a role for Congress. There also is a natural liberal bias on domestic matters in executive-dominated government, for it gives free rein to the vast government bureaucracy under the president’s control.
Bush would be smart to pledge clearly and unequivocally that he will reverse all executive actions and suspend all regulations passed since Obama became president and then one by one decide which to re-implement, which to change and which to toss in the trash. That should include any waivers or executive actions with regard to Iran under which we have lifted sanctions and/or given the regime more leeway to enrich and maintain its nuclear weapons program than was afforded it (which is none) under United Nations resolutions up to this point.
The second is to draw some lines — clear and unmistakable — on the top issues of concern to voters. Bush has said he wants to be positive and tell people what he is for. That is critical, but he can’t simply be for upward mobility. The Democrats say that as well. What specifically are the things Bush favors? Why doesn’t Obamacare help the poor and middle class and, in fact, makes things worse? How would Bush promote a culture of work? Right now it is all too fuzzy and vague, allowing people to suspect the worst if they are inclined to do so.
If Bush won’t sign the tax pledge (and I commend any candidate who won’t sign pledges, as readers may remember from 2012), he cannot not simply point to his Florida past. He must say what he will and won’t do. Is a value-added tax out of the question? Is a bigger break for parents in the cards? The same is true on the budget sequester, defense spending and every foreign policy issue. Bush’s advisers insist that, despite a wide array of advisers with conflicting and sometimes controversial views, we should all know where he stands on Israel, for example. But do we? We have learned the hard way not to take politicians’ bland assertions at face value. In practice, does that mean supplying Israel with bunker-buster bombs (if it needs to attack Iran), taking action against entities and countries that support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, demanding we get out of the U.N. Human Rights Council, pulling out of institutions that unilaterally recognize the Palestinian state, recognizing that the “peace process” is a farce and living up to the pre-Obama bilateral understanding on settlements (instead of continuing to blame Israel for the lack of a peace deal)? Maybe it is some of these or none or all. We do see specificity and hints of the fire in the belly, for example, when Bush talks about Cuba. But that same certitude about good and evil, friend and foe, needs to come across on a whole range of issues.
In short, Bush really has not shown us what is in his heart. He confesses to being an introvert, but in some way he has to show what he will fight passionately for and what he will go to the mat to defeat. Former Texas governor Rick Perry shows passion, as does Rubio (especially about the American dream and international tyrants), and while there was some doubt at the onset of the campaign, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has shown it as well (no one is going to accuse him of being a pushover or afraid of a fight). There will be those who intensely disagree with Bush and simply won’t buy him as a candidate no matter what. But he has to convince others that he will be on their side when the going gets tough. He is plainly a grown-up, proficient in describing our challenges and with a solid record as governor. What is missing is some bright line definition, some aggressiveness and some emotion. Maybe that simply is not his style. If so, he may have a hard time rallying support.
UPDATE: A Bush adviser agreed to respond to a series of questions on Bush’s relationship with former secretary of state James Baker, whose views on Israel and attendance at the notorious J Street conference raised eyebrows. The adviser responded, “Governor Bush consults with a broad group of advisers, reflecting different views. The Governor’s own record on Israel is one of strong and unwavering support. When it comes to J Street, in particular, he firmly opposes lobbying groups whose actions undermine Israel’s efforts to defend itself.” As for a stance on an unratified deal with Iran, Bush’s adviser said, “Governor Bush warned weeks ago about the danger to US interests and partners in the region of any deal that leaves Iran with a nascent nuclear weapons program, free to develop missiles that can launch those weapons, further empowered to endanger the Middle East and Gulf region through its forces and agents, and relieved of economic pressure through sanctions and related policies.” But what about specifically pledging not to carry out a bad deal Congress never approved? “Given the Governor’s strong support for Israel, he fully shares its concerns about a possible deal with Iran. Regrettably, the Administration has pursued a misguided strategy that has led it to make a series of concessions to Iran that leave it on the precipice of a bad deal. Given the stakes for the security of the US, Israel, and other partners and allies, it is understandable that members of Congress of both parties have urged serious engagement and review of the Administration’s approach. The Administration needs to face its critics openly and honestly — and accept the need for a public debate on one of the most important foreign policy decisions facing us. Governor Bush hopes this debate will lead the Administration to change its approach and pull back from a deal that would increase the likelihood of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons and further endanger the region and the world. It would certainly be a mistake to turn to the UN instead of to the US Congress and the American people to codify a retreat in U.S. policy toward Iran.” Well, that is not as definitive as other Republicans, but it is a start.