The barely-secret Jeb Bush for President Committee was in overdrive last weekend. First, Jeb’s son George P. Bush told a national audience Jeb was “moving forward” on 2016. At the same time, the New York Times reported almost the entire Bush family is pushing Jeb to run – including two former presidents. Last week, I wrote that Wisconsin’s Scott Walker would likely vault to the top of the Republican list of presidential contenders – with a big caveat, that he prevail next Tuesday against a tough challenger in a state that trends blue. No matter, Jeb Bush is the GOP favorite for the nomination the moment he formally announces.
Pundits, in turn, promptly started debunking the idea that he would be the frontrunner. They caution that Jeb’s not a perfect ideological fit, doesn’t dominate polls like Hillary Clinton does for Dems, and may suffer from what the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza calls “the dynasty thing.”
These critics ignore history. Since Barry Goldwater, the Republican Party has not nominated an ideologically pure candidate. Mitt Romney, John McCain, George W. Bush, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, and, yes, even Ronald Reagan were not entirely conservative choices.
Concerning “the dynasty thing,” the reality is a Bush has been on the Republican ticket in six of the past nine presidential elections. The “dynasty thing” didn’t stop W. from winning in 2000, and won’t stop Jeb in 2016. If anything, it helps. After six years of President Obama, rifts between the Bush brand and the Republican base heal at the specter of eight more years of a Democrat in the White House. Second, the Bush name drives a universe of support that will run and fund a national campaign. Third, his lineage ensures voters will not have a difficult time envisioning Jeb Bush as president.
Candidate Jeb’s biggest problems are his positions on immigration, education, and, remarkably, taxes. On immigration, he takes the realistic position that we cannot deport every person who is in our country illegally. There are many on the right for whom this is disqualifying, but it’s certainly not every Republican voter in the country. On education, Jeb fought for school choice and increased standards. Much to his chagrin, Jeb’s focus on improved standards, now known as Common Core, is repugnant to the many who considered it a power-grab by the Obama administration.
On taxes, Jeb’s actual record stands in stark contrast to the criticism. As governor, he cut taxes every year, and abolished the state’s investment tax. The criticism is not of his actual record but instead derives from a comment he made in June 2012 to the House Budget Committee. Asked if he would accept a theoretical $1 increase in taxes in exchange for a $10 cut in federal spending, Bush answered, “If you could bring to me a majority of people to say that we’re going to have $10 of spending cuts for $1 of revenue enhancement – put me in, Coach.”
That’s a far cry from support for tax increases. Rather, it’s a hypothetical answer to a difficult, but common question of governance: would you accept a major win that requires you to take something you really don’t want? Is anything short of perfect acceptable if it helps solve a long-term problem?
Governing is not war or sports. It rarely, if ever, involves total victory, and this is most true on big issues. Indeed, a willingness to accept something short of total victory is what separates doers from talkers. This is what portends to distinguish a President Jeb Bush administration from the abysmal present. Sometimes, to advance conservative policy, it might be necessary to accept – or just consider – less desirable ideas. At the time Jeb was asked this question, Democrats controlled both the presidency and the Senate, and the Bush tax cuts were set to expire at the end of the year. If Republicans did nothing, taxes would increase anyway. Jeb’s statement was a reflection of the limitations on affecting policy change in a democracy.
Our country suffers from a long-term debt problem created by Social Security, Medicare, ObamaCare subsidies, and, to a slightly lesser extent, Medicaid. It’s a math problem caused by a declining birth rate and the Baby Boomer generation reaching retirement. It’s what John McCain calls “generational theft.”
Note what Jeb didn’t say. He didn’t say taxes should be higher or that the federal government needs more revenue. Instead, he said he’d accept a deal to avoid bankrupting our country through out-of-control entitlement spending.
I suppose instead Jeb’s critics would rather he said, “No. I’d prefer we wait to reform entitlement programs until that magical moment when the stars align with a Republican president and Congressional majorities have the guts to redress our national fiscal crisis by reforming entitlement programs without having to accept any ‘deal’ with Democrats or soft Republicans.” Whether our federal government is controlled by Republicans or Democrats, that “magical moment” isn’t happening, and those who would disqualify Jeb for this hypothetical statement must not be serious about resolving the “generational theft” that, for decades, both Republicans and Democrats have lacked the courage to fix.
Other candidates and their supporters may pound their chests and shout that they will always insist on – and win – total victories. But it won’t get us any closer to solving a debt crisis that grows larger every year.
If he’s in, Jeb must, of course, persuade Republicans to vote for him despite some differences. He must concede that, naturally, he won’t agree with every Republican on each issue, but for the Republican primary to remain relevant, it must be more than a meat grinder rejecting anything less than 100 percent purity. He’ll argue that, while Republicans may squabble about certain policies, there are overarching ideological themes for which he would be the best messenger: the themes of liberty and opportunity, responsible and smaller government, and the power of greater economic freedom to improve the lives of all Americans.
Then, his surrogates will argue that the alternative to a Bush candidacy may be President Hillary Clinton – that for conservative ideas and causes to have a voice, they must have a champion who can win in November. And here’s how it happens: Jeb changes the presidential map. He puts Florida’s 29 electoral votes in play, and is quite likely to compete in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Minnesota, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, or New Mexico – a set of states from which the Republican nominee must win three or four to reach the magical 270 votes in the Electoral College.
Jeb won’t benefit from the heir-apparent treatment Democrats appear to have reserved for Hillary Clinton. Nor should he. If he’s to be the Republican nominee, he must earn it. Though, politically, it’s an eternity until nomination day, if Jeb Bush enters this race, he’s the favorite for the Republican nomination – ideological imperfections and all.