Jeb's Take on George W.: Conservative Lite

Jeb's Take on George W.: Conservative Lite
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In New Hampshire last week, Jeb Bush was busy being his own man.

First, he said Medicare Part D, a program signed into law by his brother, President George W. Bush, should have been paid for at the time it was implemented, rather than running up government spending. 

Then, in a sit-down with a local TV reporter, Jeb Bush characterized himself as the most conservative Bush, more so than either his father or his brother.

The remarks called to mind Bush’s candid assessment last month, in an interview with Stephen Colbert, that his brother was not conservative enough “on spending” in particular.

Call it sibling rivalry playing out on a national scale.

As Bush seeks to convince Republican primary voters that he is sufficiently conservative, his brother has become his favorite measuring stick — serving the dual purpose of shoring up Jeb Bush’s conservative credentials while creating space between him and his family name. 

The strategy is no accident, and Bush’s campaign acknowledges the shift in the former Florida governor’s tone.

“Jeb has laid out plans for dismantling D.C., reforming the tax code and reforming regulations that go far beyond what was proposed in the 2000s,” said Tim Miller, a spokesman for Bush.

Broadly, Bush’s candidacy hinges on whether he can convince Republicans that his record as Florida governor proves he’s as conservative as any other candidate. On the campaign trail, he makes the case frequently that he is a “committed conservative,” and television advertisements paid for by the pro-Bush Right To Rise super PAC have begun to echo the theme. But putting his record toe-to-toe with that of his own brother has added a new wrinkle. 

The rhetoric calls to mind another former governor and presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, who in 2012 characterized himself in one speech as having been a “severely conservative governor.” He won over enough Republicans to secure the party’s nomination, but he never persuaded the most conservative voters that he was one of them. 

“There’s just very little evidence that voters pick up on these kinds of subtle signals about ideology,” said Lynn Vavreck, a political science professor at UCLA. 

While Bush might struggle to frame himself as a conservative candidate in the minds of Republican voters, there is also a question of whether those voters will draw any substantial distinction between Jeb Bush’s stances and policies advanced by his brother. 

Jeb Bush has so far outlined the starkest contrast on spending, which, under President George W. Bush, grew from 18 percent to roughly 21 percent of the GDP. Indeed, it was something of a campaign promise: Even before he took office, as a candidate for president in 2000, George W. Bush proposed spending large chunks of the federal budget on “important projects” — a philosophy that would meet with scorn in today’s GOP.

“He didn't veto things, he didn't bring order and fiscal restraint," Jeb Bush explained in his interview with Colbert.

Jeb Bush, meanwhile, has proposed stiff cuts in federal spending, in part by shrinking the government workforce by as much as 10 percent. As Florida governor, he often reminds voters on the campaign trail, the state budget shrank. 

Taxation is the other major area of difference that Jeb Bush’s campaign points to, noting that George W. Bush cut taxes but did not reform the tax code, as Jeb Bush has said he would. But because both plans have in common the effect of lower taxes, they might be indistinguishable to many voters.

The other key differences are on more minor issues: reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank (George W. Bush supported it, while Jeb Bush does not) or cutting off federal funding for Planned Parenthood (George W. Bush did not, but Jeb Bush has said he would).

Still, Jeb Bush faces a challenge to put the focus on these distinctions, rather than the broad overlap between his policy proposals and his brother’s. 

Nor will it be easy for Jeb Bush to make the case that he is the most conservative of his family. George W. Bush famously ran his first campaign for president as a “compassionate conservative,” and today, he is solidly popular among conservative Republicans. A CNN/ORC poll published in May showed that 73 percent of self-identified conservatives hold a favorable view of President George W. Bush.

Miller, Bush’s spokesman, laughed off the notion that Jeb Bush would compare his conservative record to anyone but his brother’s: “What would you like the metric to be? Calvin Coolidge?” 

Miller added, the dynamic is relatively unavoidable for Jeb Bush. “That’s just part of campaigning as a Bush.” 

Tony Fratto, who held many roles in President George W. Bush’s administration, including deputy press secretary, sees little for Jeb Bush to gain from indulging the contrast because “it’s hard to get further to the right of any of your critics.”

“He has his own record,” Fratto said of Jeb Bush, “and his record doesn’t need to stand comparison to anyone else’s.”

Rebecca Berg is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at rberg@realclearpolitics.com.

 

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