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Jeb Bush 2016: a primer

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Jeb Bush thinks he can win the general election by using positive rhetoric and appealing to the Latino electorate. But he has to get through the primary first, and while he's raising boatloads of money from GOP elites and has a record of conservative achievements in Florida, it's still unclear whether his candidacy appeals to ordinary voters.

Jeb Bush's case for the GOP primary is that he can win in the general

Jeb Bush was facing a dilemma as he prepared to run for president. Candidates generally try to appeal to the base of their party in the primary. But the GOP's conservatives have moved far to the right in recent years, so trying to please them could mean alienating general election voters.

Bush's campaign has tried to reconcile these competing imperatives by focusing not on appealing to the base, but rather on convincing the Republican Party as a whole that he's the one candidate who can beat Hillary Clinton in the general election. As Bush said in December 2014, he thinks that a successful candidate should be willing to "lose the primary to win the general."

His approach plays out in two interesting ways. First is in rhetoric, with a campaign themed around Americans' "right to rise." He believes a winning campaign "has to be much more uplifting, much more positive, much more willing to be practical" than traditional Republican platforms. "I have to show that I care about people, about their future," he said in February. On most issues, however, his policies are less moderate than his rhetoric presents him to be — and indeed, his record as governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007 was extremely conservative.

But there is one way that Bush stands out as less conservative than much of the GOP field, and it gets to the second way his distinct campaign approach plays out. Bush is focusing on his effort to appeal to Latino voters, who are increasingly viewed as a crucial demographic in presidential elections.

Bush openly supports a path to legal status for unauthorized immigrants — something the GOP base largely opposes, and that his presidential rivals have been cagey about backing. In 2014, for example, Bush called unauthorized immigration an "act of love." Additionally, and importantly, Bush is fluent in Spanish, met his wife in Mexico (she became a US citizen after their marriage), and won two elections in the key swing state of Florida.

It can be useful to contrast Bush with his main rival in the primary, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. While Bush says he'll build bridges and expand the GOP's appeal to new voters, Walker touts his ability to fight and defeat the left. Where Bush emphasizes his ability to win the Latino vote, Walker has moved for to the right on immigration, renouncing his past support for a path to legal status for unauthorized immigrants and even questioning US policies on legal immigration.

Bush's approach isn't ideal for winning over Tea Party activists, but it seems well tailored to win support from the GOP's wealthy business elite. Frustrated by two consecutive presidential election losses, this faction has long thought the party should moderate on immigration and try to stop saying things that turn off swing voters. If Bush's eye-popping, record-setting fundraising is any indication, rich Republicans love what he has to say.

His path to victory would entail winning the New Hampshire primary and then becoming the preferred choice of blue-state Republicans, who are more important in determining the GOP nominee than many think.

Yet neither GOP politicians nor the party's voters are sold on Bush's candidacy yet. Endorsements from party officials have often been a good metric of the strength of a frontrunner, and few of them outside Florida have endorsed Bush so far. Meanwhile, he's fallen behind in national polls, may not seriously compete in the conservative-dominated Iowa caucuses, and has lost his previous lead in New Hampshire.

And Bush's pitch to the party, that he is best suited to win the general, has one big drawback — his last name, which is so closely associated with his brother's unpopular administration. A contest between a Bush and (presumably) a Clinton could be unflattering for the GOP, and the party would sacrifice the advantages it could get with a fresher face as its nominee. If the Bush name looks like it will be a millstone in the general election, Republicans searching for a viable candidate may look elsewhere.

Jeb Bush talks like a moderate, but governed like a conservative in Florida

Jeb Bush has a reputation as one of the most moderate GOP presidential candidates. But while governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007, he actually racked up an extremely conservative record.

This disparity between his language and his policies isn't an accident. While he's long held strongly conservative views, Bush concluded two decades ago that the best way for a Republican to get elected is to use very compassionate and appealing rhetoric — and he's used that strategy ever since.

This approach was inspired by failure. During Bush's first campaign for governor of Florida, he called himself a "head-banging conservative," talked about "blowing up" state agencies, and said he wanted to "club this government into submission." He didn't carefully watch his words, and ended up causing controversy when, asked what his administration would do for the African-American community, he responded, "Probably nothing." (He intended to make a point about not governing based on race.)

Despite a nationwide landslide for Republicans that year, Bush lost. The lesson he took, as he told the Weekly Standard's Andrew Ferguson this year, was that "the thing I didn't do was show my heart." He thought he turned off voters by hard-line rhetoric and failed to show he cared about them.

So over the ensuing four years, Bush gave himself a political makeover. He embraced education reform as a major issue where he could combine conservative principles with a positive message, he launched high-profile efforts at outreach to the African-American community, and he focused his message on opportunity and compassion. But, Bush told Ferguson, "The ideology that I believe, the belief in limited government — that didn't change."

And once Bush won the 1998 election and took office, he proved that, pushing through a variety of very conservative measures in what had been one of the most progressive states in the South.

As governor he slashed taxes, rolled back regulations, vetoed $2 billion in legislative spending requests, and privatized a wide variety of government functions. He overhauled the state's public school system, trying to apply market forces like choice and accountability to it. He lifted restrictions on guns (including passing the nation's first Stand Your Ground law), passed pro-life bills, and fought to prevent Terri Schiavo's husband from having her feeding tube removed.

I interviewed liberal, conservative, and moderate Floridians for an article on Bush's record as governor. To a person, they emphatically argued that Bush governed the state as a staunch conservative. On both social and economic issues, Bush consistently fought to advance the priorities of the right.

Now, during his presidential campaign, he appears to be using the same playbook — using rhetoric to show that he's not some hard-hearted Republican, while sticking to conservative principles on the vast majority of issues. Immigration is the only policy issue on which he's truly breaking with his party's right.

Jeb Bush is challenging the GOP right by supporting immigration reform

For many issues, Jeb Bush's policy positions are more conservative than his rhetoric makes them seem. On immigration, though, Bush really is challenging his party's right — and that's a serious political risk for his campaign in the primaries.

Specifically, Bush supports a path to legal status for the 11 million or so unauthorized immigrants here now. "There is no plan to deport 11 million people," he said earlier this year. "We should give them a path to legal status where they work, where they don't receive government benefits, where they don't break the law, where they learn English, and where they make a contribution to our society."

Rhetorically, he's gone even further. In an April 2014 speech, he said that unauthorized immigrants "broke the law, but it's not a felony. It's an act of love ... It shouldn't rile people up that people are actually coming to this country to provide for their families." This, of course, starkly contrasts with attempts by other GOP candidates to portray these immigrants as dangerous criminals. And, though immigration wasn't a major state issue while Bush was governor of Florida, when issues involving unauthorized immigrants did come up, he pushed to help them. He proposed to issue these immigrants driver's licenses and to offer unauthorized children in-state tuition at state universities, though neither initiative was passed or implemented.

There are some political benefits to Bush's stance. Many Republican elites believe that because the Latino vote is growing increasingly important, the GOP should moderate its policies on unauthorized immigration to better appeal to those voters in the general election. Mitt Romney, they think, was pulled too far to the right during the primaries, when he infamously voiced his support for "self-deportation." Additionally, the business wing of the party — which has been contributing heavily to Bush's campaign — has long backed immigration reform, so its members would naturally prefer the party to moderate on it rather than on, say, tax policy.

There's also likely a personal element to Bush's refusal to move too far to the right here. Bush, whose wife is Mexican-born, naturally seems to despise the extreme rhetoric many conservatives use on immigration, and takes pleasure in telling them that their policy proposals simply wouldn't work.

This approach is considered by most to be a liability in the primaries, because resistance to immigration reform among the party's rank-and-file remains quite strong. For instance, strong opposition from the right convinced GOP leaders in the House of Representatives not to tackle immigration reform in 2014.

Accordingly, Bush's most formidable rivals — Scott Walker and Marco Rubio — are following different paths. Walker has moved far to the right, no longer supporting a path to legal status for unauthorized immigrants, and even expressing skepticism about legal immigration (though there are reports that in private, he sounds different). And Marco Rubio, who co-authored the Senate's 2013 immigration reform bill, has been notably avoiding the legal status issue for the time being, saying that a "reasonable conversation" about that topic can't happen until Americans become convinced that the border is secure.

When it comes to policy specifics, Bush hasn't been completely consistent. In 2012, he told Charlie Rose that he supported "a path to citizenship" — not just to legal status, but full citizenship — for unauthorized immigrants. But in a book released the following year he said citizenship was "an undeserving reward for conduct that we cannot afford to encourage." However, on the core issue of whether the U.S. should pass immigration reform including a path to legal status, Bush remains the most openly supportive of the major GOP candidates.

Jeb Bush, a longtime education reformer, is now saying he'll take a hands-off approach

It once seemed like Jeb Bush would tout his record on education reform as one of his key qualifications for the presidency. He's advocated sweeping reforms for two decades, and dramatically overhauled Florida's system as governor.

But now that he's running for president, he's instead emphasizing what he won't do.

Bush has said this year that "the federal government should always be in the back seat" on education reform, meaning he wants to let states do what they want. This implies that he wouldn't use the federal government to promote the Common Core, or to push major, nationwide, hands-on overhauls like his brother's No Child Left Behind Act.

"The federal government has no role in the creation of standards, either directly or indirectly," Bush said at CPAC in February 2015, adding, "The role of the federal government, if there's any, is to provide incentives for more school choice." The following month, Bush wrote an op-ed titled "Let states take the lead in education."

Bush has adopted such a hands-off approach partly because many conservatives have lately been looking askance at government-driven education reform. They've started to suspect that the heavy hand of the federal government and even some states are actually harming schools, rather than helping them.

During Bush's governorship, conservatives were on his side, as he implemented genuinely pioneering conservative and pro-market reforms in the state. He brought accountability and yearly high-stakes testing to the Florida schools. He heavily expanded charter schools. And he passed the first statewide voucher program in the US (though it ended up being struck down by the courts). Overall, he was one of the first to move the ideas of conservative intellectuals like Milton Friedman and Terry Moe from think tanks to the real world.

But the politics on education have shifted somewhat since then, with opposition to top-down government interventions growing on the right and focusing especially on the Common Core, an effort to unify academic standards in states promoted by the Obama administration. The Common Core drive started after Bush's governorship had ended, but he became known as a strong outside supporter of the standards.

Now that Common Core has become so radioactive among conservatives, though, Bush has tried to make it very clear that as president, he wouldn't push the Common Core on states. This restrained federal role may be the approach conservatives want — but Bush's adoption of it makes it even more difficult for him to tout his record on education reform as a qualification for the presidency.

On foreign policy, Jeb Bush is trying to avoid being either his brother or his father

Jeb Bush's foreign policy views are generally neoconservative and hawkish, which is standard for a modern Republican. Yet the fact that the two most recent GOP presidents were Jeb's relatives presents him with a unique set of political challenges. He's trying to convince swing voters and moderates that he's not too much like his brother, while assuring conservatives that he's not too much like his father.

Overall, when it comes to foreign affairs, Bush is saying similar things to the rest of his party. He's harshly critical of the Obama administration, saying in his announcement speech that it's led to "crises uncontained, violence unopposed, enemies unnamed, friends undefended, and alliances unraveling." In a December 2014 speech to the US Cuba Democracy PAC, Bush "sounded notes of concerns with nearly every quarter of the world: Russia, China, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel," according to the Miami Herald's Marc Caputo.

In general, Bush is skeptical of Obama's attempts at outreach toward hostile regimes, calling the effort to make a nuclear deal with Iran "naive" and saying that instead of lifting the US trade and travel embargo on Cuba, "we should consider strengthening it." He's also criticized Obama for issuing a red line against Syria and then not attacking the country when it used chemical weapons, saying, "The iron rule of superpower deterrent is 'Mean it when you say it.' And it has been broken by this president." And he frequently calls for more US "strength" or "resolve" — particularly when it comes to dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Yet the last Republican president named Bush who talked tough ended up starting a war in Iraq that's now widely viewed as a mistake. So it raised many eyebrows this May when Jeb seemed to say that, knowing what we know now, he still would have supported the invasion of Iraq. He later said he misheard the question, and after days of his rivals piling on, Bush clarified, "I would not have engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq."

The incident illustrates what a tightrope Jeb has to walk regarding the George W. Bush administration. It would seem rude for him to criticize his own brother, but he also has to assure general election voters that he won't follow the same path.

On the right, however, the fear is that Jeb will be too much like the first President Bush, who took a pragmatic and "realist" approach to foreign policy that conservatives viewed as insufficiently principled. Pro-Israel activists, especially, aren't fans of the first Bush administration's policies and its secretary of state, James Baker, who once reportedly said in a private conversation, "Fuck the Jews, they didn't vote for us anyway." Jeb announced Baker as a member of a team of foreign policy experts that would advise his campaign anyway. But after the former secretary addressed a conference by J Street, a progressive pro-Israel group disliked by many conservatives, some wealthy Republican donors were furious, and Bush ended up distancing himself.

Jeb has tried to meet this challenge by stating clearly that he won't specifically follow either of the two President Bush models. "I love my brother, I love my dad," Jeb declared in a February foreign policy speech. "But I'm my own man, and my views are shaped by my own thinking and my own experiences." That's a message that could satisfy both moderates and conservatives, so long as they're convinced by it.

Jeb Bush is raising a remarkable and historic amount of money

Perhaps the most notable feature of Jeb Bush's presidential bid is that his operation is by far the best-funded of any candidate, either Republican or Democrat. This is partly because he has lots of support among wealthy Republicans, and partly because he really stretched the limits of campaign finance law and precedent.

The Right to Rise Super PAC supporting Bush, which can accept contributions of unlimited size from donors, raised $103 million in the first half of 2015. Together with the $11.4 million Bush's actual campaign raised in just the 16 remaining days in June after his announcement, Team Jeb's haul is over $114 million. That's $43 million or so more than Hillary Clinton's team raised, and more than twice as much as any Republican candidate's operation managed to pull in. It's unprecedented.

Fundraising chart

One obvious takeaway from this is that wealthy Republicans really, really like Jeb Bush and hope to make him the GOP nominee. One fundraiser hosted by a New York financier reportedly charged $100,000 per attendee, an absurdly high amount — and yet lots of people paid it!

Bush's fundraising success is partly because his policy positions are very well aligned with the preferences of the GOP donor class, since he's a staunch conservative on economic issues like taxes but supports immigration reform. It's also partly because his father and brother built up an extensive fundraising network over the past few decades.

But another reason Bush managed to raise so much money is that he gamed our broken campaign finance system in some remarkably brazen ways.

Bush announced he'd "actively explore" a presidential campaign in December 2014, and it was quickly clear to almost every observer that he'd already decided to run. Yet Bush spent the following six months in absolutely no rush to officially announce his campaign — because as long as he wasn't a candidate, he could more easily raise those vast sums for his Super PAC.

Actual candidates, you see, can't directly ask any donor for more than a few thousand dollars at a time without violating campaign finance law. They can't coordinate with the Super PACs supporting them, either.

So by not actually becoming a candidate — or even telling the Federal Election Commission he was exploring a campaign — for several months, Bush managed to dodge both of these restrictions. He kept on personally fundraising huge amounts of money for the Super PAC until the late spring. Delaying his announcement also let Bush have a lot more time to coordinate closely with that Super PAC, run by his longtime adviser Mike Murphy, on strategy.

This led to the increasingly ridiculous spectacle of Bush insisting, as late as May 2015, that he hasn't made up his mind about whether he was running. (At one event, he slipped and said "I'm running for president," before quickly correcting himself and saying "if I run.")

FEC chair Ann Ravel didn't seem to look kindly on Bush's behavior. Though she didn't mention him specifically, she wrote an op-ed saying that behavior like Bush's is "absurd." Once a certain amount of money is raised, Ravel wrote, politicians "cannot avoid campaign finance laws merely by not calling themselves candidates." But the FEC, intensely divided along partisan lines, did nothing to enforce her view.

Bush's delay of his announcement wasn't the only way he's gone beyond past precedent to raise more money. Though Super PAC contributions can be quite large, their donors' identities still do have to be disclosed to the FEC. But Bush's team also set up a group that can raise secret money, Right to Rise Policy Solutions, which the Washington Post reported would serve as his policy shop.

Contributors to that group, a nonprofit, can also give unlimited amounts of money. The difference is that we'll have little idea of who's donating to it or even how much they're giving until after 2016 is already over (unless, of course, the group chooses to release the information voluntarily).

Bush's fundraising methods may have been questionable, but the results — a gigantic haul that dwarfs that of most other candidates' operations — speak for themselves. His success will surely inspire other candidates to follow his lead in the future, and come up with new and innovative ways to raise ever larger sums.

Neither voters nor Republican politicians are yet sold on Jeb Bush's candidacy

Jeb Bush's presidential operation has a unique strategy and has raised an enormous amount of money. But Bush currently lacks strong support from actual voters, and from GOP elected officials.

In national polls, the best Bush has ever done was a tepid first earlier in the year — and now, he's behind Donald Trump. And there's a question of whether his support that still does exist is just temporarily bolstered by name recognition.

GOP elected officials aren't rallying around the putative frontrunner, either. Here's a chart from the political scientist John Sides first posted at the Monkey Cage in July 2015, that shows that very few incumbent Republicans have been eager to endorse a presidential candidate this year. (According to FiveThirtyEight's endorsement tracker, things have barely picked up since.)


(John Sides)

Many political scientists believe endorsements from party elites are an important indicator for which candidate is gaining support, and as you can see in the chart above, George W. Bush won them speedily and overwhelmingly in the 1999-2000 campaign. The same hasn't happened for Jeb.

Furthermore, Bush faces a difficult road in the early primary and caucus states. He appears not to be seriously competing in the conservative-dominated Iowa caucuses, where he has polled badly. His former lead in tNew Hampshire polls has evaporated. South Carolina would likely be suspicious of moderate-sounding candidates like Jeb, and Nevada has decided to stick with a caucus that will be difficult for him to win (despite his hopes it would switch to a primary). Bush can't even take his home state of Florida for granted, since Marco Rubio is running too.

Despite Bush's pitch for his own appeal in the general election, voters and politicians may doubt the wisdom of making him their standard-bearer because of his last name. If Americans are faced with the choice between a Clinton and a Bush, which recent presidency are they most likely to feel nostalgic about? Jeb's brother left office deeply unpopular and controversial, and if the GOP binds itself to the Bush name yet again, the party would sacrifice the chance to challenge Clinton with a genuinely new face.

Bush's best hope is that he can win New Hampshire and solidify his position as the best choice for the establishment and blue-state Republicans (who are more important in determining the GOP nominee than many think). Since he's raised so much money, he'll certainly be well-funded enough to compete. Now he just has to convince people to actually vote for him.


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