Jeb Bush’s speech announcing his presidential campaign confirmed some things we already suspected — like the fact that he’s running — but also revealed a few surprises that suggest the 2016 Republican primaries will be more interesting than expected.
First: Yes, Bush plans to portray most of his Republican rivals as a bunch of big talkers who have never run anything. File this in the we-already-knew-it category. “There’s no passing off responsibility when you’re a governor, no blending into the legislative crowd or filing an amendment and calling that success,” he said. “As our whole nation has learned since 2008, executive experience is another term for preparation, and there is no substitute for that.” So much for Sens. Cruz, Graham, Paul and Rubio.
Second: More surprisingly, Bush is distancing himself from his brother’s economic record. He attacked President Barack Obama for what he called “the slowest economic recovery ever.” But he also talked about “all the families who haven’t gotten a raise in 15 years.” That includes the years that some conservatives used to call the (George W.) “Bush boom.” That must have been a deliberate choice, and it’s probably a smart one. But Jeb should be prepared for the obvious follow-up question: Why didn’t people get raises during the last Republican administration?
Third: Bush is running as a full-spectrum conservative rather than shying away from social issues. He didn’t just attack Democrats for favoring excessive regulation and diminished defense spending. He criticized them for what he called “the shabby treatment” of a religious charity — the Little Sisters of the Poor — that opposes regulation forcing it to facilitate [medical measures that violate their religious beliefs].
This could make for an unusual primary dynamic. Bush is the “establishment” candidate in the race. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is, according to opinion polls, the leader among the candidates trying to position themselves to Bush’s right. Yet Bush appears to be more comfortable talking about social issues than Walker, who would rather focus on economic policies. On a set of issues that have typically been important to primary voters, it’s the establishment candidate who is the more outspoken conservative.
Fourth: Even as he courts conservatives, Bush is already running for the general election. His remark a few months ago about being willing to lose the primary to win the general was clumsy: It made no sense taken literally and it inadvertently conveyed an indifference to conservative voters. But he was apparently quite serious about the basic point: He isn’t going to sacrifice his electability to win primary votes, and he’s going to campaign with the general electorate at the forefront of his mind. One example: Bush spoke about improving education for children with developmental challenges. That’s not going to turn off committed conservatives in the primaries, but its main political value is to soften his impression among swing voters come next November.
Fifth: Details TBD. Hillary Clinton’s speech last weekend was heavy on policy. It mentioned universal early-childhood education, paid sick days and family leave, a higher minimum wage, and more. Bush opted for a more thematic approach. He wants all Americans to enjoy a “right to rise.” But his campaign will have to spell out exactly what that means for taxes, health care and so on. (Full disclosure: My wife is an adviser to Bush, although I still plan to criticize him as necessary.)
Sixth: He knows he’s not going to have a coronation. “It is entirely up to me to earn the nomination of my party,” he said. Recent coverage of Bush has emphasized that his campaign has been rougher going than some of his supporters expected. They should have some perspective. When Bush’s father ran in 1988, he was the sitting vice president and he had won Iowa eight years previously. He still came in third, behind a televangelist, in the caucus.
The party is more entrepreneurial and less royalist than it was then. But Bush was always going to have a struggle. The upside of a rocky few months is that nobody around him can have any illusions about that any more.
Ramesh Ponnuru, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a senior editor for National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.