One of the big stories of the emerging 2016 presidential contest has been the fractured relationship between former Florida governor Jeb Bush and the Republican base. Conservative activists have been openly hostile to his putative candidacy, primarily because of his centrist positions on immigration and education. But this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, he stuck to those positions and won applause from a skeptical crowd.
During Bush’s tenure as governor of Florida, from 1999 to 2007, he was considered one of the most accomplished conservative governors in the country. He installed in Florida the nation’s first statewide school voucher program, allowing low-income parents to send their children to schools in wealthier parts of the state. He ended race-based admissions at state universities. He cut taxes by $19 billion while increasing the state’s reserves by $8.5 billion. Many conservatives felt that he would have been a better president than his brother George W. Bush.
But eight years is an eternity in politics. Many of today’s conservative activists entered politics with the formation of the tea party movement in 2009. They weren’t around for and don’t remember the former governor’s Florida record. What they do remember is that the size and scale of government increased under George W. Bush. And the two causes Jeb Bush has been most associated with in recent years — immigration reform and the Common Core education program — evoke hostility from the conservative base.
This was the context of his Thursday appearance before CPAC, an annual gathering of conservative activists that is a longtime must-attend event for Republican presidential aspirants. Earlier that morning, radio host Laura Ingraham asked, “Why don’t we just call it quits and let Jeb Bush and Hillary [Clinton run] on the same ticket?” Other speakers recounted Bush’s positions to a chorus of boos. Activists spread word that they would engineer a mass walkout during Bush’s appearance.
In a break from the format of past years, during which candidates gave stump speeches and retreated behind the curtain, this year CPAC required all candidates to answer questions from a moderator. Bush elected to forgo a speech, instead spending his entire 20 minutes in an interview with Fox News firebrand Sean Hannity.
Hannity went straight at it, asking Bush about his heresies on immigration and education. And Bush stood his ground. “I know there’s disagreement here [in this room],” said Bush. “The simple fact is there is no plan to deport 11 million people, and we should give them a path to legal status.” Hannity grilled Bush on whether he still supports allowing driver’s licenses and discounted in-state college tuition for students whose parents entered the country illegally. Bush said, “I do,” and pointed out that a plan to do so was passed by the conservative Florida legislature and signed by its Republican governor last year. Bush also doubled down on “higher standards” for public schools, his description of the controversial Common Core program.
When Bush expressed these views, there was a smattering of boos. But there was much more applause, especially as Bush recounted his governing record. Only a few dozen people walked out of the large convention ballroom, while thousands remained. A crew of Bush supporters passed out T-shirts and stickers supporting their man. And when he left the stage, he did so to cheers.
Many GOP contenders, such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, believe that the only way to win the Republican nomination in 2016 is to embrace policies that are in perfect harmony with the party’s most hardened activists. But a silent majority of Republicans recognize the need for the 2016 nominee to appeal to Democrats and unaffiliated voters. Bush has his eye on that larger goal.
There remain pitfalls in his still-forming political platform. He has indicated that he supports repealing and replacing “Obamacare,” the 2010 health law formally known as the Affordable Care Act. But he hasn’t expressed how he would do so without disrupting coverage for the tens of millions now enrolled in “Obamacare”-sponsored health plans.
On foreign policy, Bush has said that he is “his own man” and shouldn’t be held responsible for his brother’s policies. It will be interesting to see how he navigates the challenge of advocating a muscular role for the United States in the world while declaring his independence from his brother and father.
But the early indications for Jeb Bush are encouraging. Telling people what they want to hear is an age-old political practice, and the CPAC stage was filled to the brim with presidential pander bears. What Bush did was something quite different. He attempted to persuade a skeptical audience to consider his views and earned their respect as he went. Sometimes, we call that leadership.