Jeb Bush went before the Detroit Economic Club on Wednesday sounding very much like a politician ready and eager to run a general election campaign for president. Whether he is as ready to run for and win the Republican nomination is another question.
For the past two months, Bush has set the pace among prospective Republican presidential candidates. Wednesday’s appearance was the latest example. In broad terms, Bush offered Republicans a template for the policy debate about middle-class economics and economic mobility, one designed to put Republicans on a more-level playing field in a debate that Democrats long have believed favors them.
Bush’s goal seemed clear: to prod more Americans to look at his party as one that is as committed to address the struggles of middle-class families — but with different solutions than the Democrats. This was neither the “kinder, gentler” rhetoric of his father nor the “compassionate conservative” mantra of his brother. Rather it was a conservative’s assertion that liberal policies have failed the very people they claim to help and that the Republican Party should and can offer more effective alternatives.
Echoing President Obama in his State of the Union address, Bush argued that the struggles of the middle class and the “spider web” of policies and circumstances that traps people in poverty are the overriding domestic issues of this cycle. But in contrast to the president, he argued that the federal government is not the place to look for solutions.
Speaking in a city whose recent bout with bankruptcy came to symbolize the decline and neglect of American cities, Bush said his party should take this argument over poverty and the middle class directly into the urban areas, “where our ideas can matter most, where the failures of liberal government are most obvious.” In doing so he was seeking to rebut the idea that Republicans are a party of the suburbs, exurbs, small towns and rural America.
But it was as much Bush’s demeanor and comfort before his audience as his message that conveyed the kind of campaign he hopes to run (and on the question of whether he will become a candidate, there was little pretense about where he is heading). Though he read from a prepared text, the message he delivered sounded authentically his. Taking questions, he seemed at ease and generally forthcoming — and aware that a candidate for president speaks to a wider audience, no matter the venue where he appears.
Bush’s speech Wednesday stopped short of policy proposals. He said he would detail his ideas in the coming months “with a mix of smart policies and reforms to tap our resources and capacity to innovate.” At that point, everyone will have a better understanding of whether these ideas represent new approaches or rebranded party orthodoxy.
The most successful presidential candidates generally are those who, at the start of their campaigns, know what they hope to be saying at the end of their campaigns. That is the impression Bush gave on Wednesday. The most successful also are often candidates who redefine their party rather than be defined by it, whether Bill Clinton in reinterpreting his Democratic Party in 1992 or George W. Bush trying to soften the harsher edges of his party in 2000. Is that what Republican primary voters want in 2016?
Some Republicans believe the party can win the White House by energizing the base more effectively than either John McCain in 2008 or Mitt Romney in 2012. They argue that millions of their voters stayed home — working-class whites or religious and social conservatives — because they lacked enthusiasm for their nominees.
Other Republicans believe that the way to win in 2016, given demographic trends, the state of the electoral map and the experience of 2012 in particular, is to find ways to appeal to a broader audience of voters. That’s everything from more voters of color, particularly Hispanics, to women (especially single women) to younger voters to suburban moms. Bush clearly falls into this second camp.
Wednesday’s performance offered evidence of why Democrats see Bush as a potentially formidable general election candidate against their presumed nominee, former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton — despite the liabilities that come with his last name.
And yet, for all of this, Bush has anything but an easy path to becoming his party’s nominee. When Romney and his team were deliberating about whether he should enter the 2016 competition, one question kept coming back at them: Who among Romney’s prospective rivals would have an easier path to the nomination? At least in what they were willing to share with reporters, the answer was no one — and certainly not Bush.
The latest poll of Iowa Republicans, from the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg Politics, showed the reason why. Bush is in the middle of the pack in Iowa, the favorite of just 8 percent of likely caucus participants. More troubling, 46 percent gave him a favorable rating, compared with 43 percent who view him unfavorably.
All this can change over the course of a year, but Bush’s standing in Iowa today reminds strategists of Clinton in 2007, when she looked strong nationally but more vulnerable in Iowa. She eventually finished third in the caucuses there, behind Obama and John Edwards, an outcome that totally rearranged the Democratic race. Beyond that, though he is now called the GOP front-runner by dint of his name, big-state experience, network and fundraising capacity, Bush’s national standing among Republicans is not nearly as strong as Clinton’s was eight years ago.
Bush’s posture on immigration and on educational standards troubles some conservatives. His answer Wednesday to a question about immigration lacked any of the red-meat rhetoric common among other prospective GOP candidates. How he plans to speak to the kind of conservative forum that was held in Iowa recently will be an indicator of his navigational skills.
Bush was asked Wednesday whether Republicans can avoid a repeat of their chaotic 2012 nomination contest, which the questioner likened to the bar scene in “Star Wars.” Bush acknowledged the nominating process is often a little bit like the “Wild West,” but said he was hopeful that the party’s desire to win in 2016, along with moves by the Republican National Committee to limit debates and tighten the primary-caucus season, will have a tempering effect.
There will be many candidates running. The goal, he said, should not be to tear one another down but rather to explain “why you and why are you doing it.” Bush will have to explain that persuasively to his fellow Republicans if he hopes to get to the general election.