When Bushes run for president, they portray themselves as more caring, more gentle and more compassionate than their sometimes heartless and harshly ideological fellow Republicans. It worked for George H.W. Bush in 1988, it worked for George W. Bush in 2000, and now Jeb Bush is preparing to give it another go in 2016.
The youngest Bush, who is still officially “exploring” a White House run, is doing a slow rollout of themes for his candidacy. In a recent appearance at the Detroit Economic Club, Bush tested a few ways to distance himself from Republicans who have stumbled on issues related to the poor and the government’s efforts to help them.
For example, Bush accused Washington — not Republicans, not Democrats, just big-government Washington — of creating programs that ensnare people in poverty. “Instead of a safety net to cushion our occasional falls, they have built a spider web that traps people in perpetual dependence,” Bush said.
Compare that to Rep. Paul Ryan’s suggestion, repeated many times during the 2012 campaign, that government programs can be an inducement to laziness. “We believe in a safety net,” Ryan said, “but we don’t want to turn it into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into a sense of complacency.”
Ryan no longer uses it, but the line is still popular with high-profile Republicans. For example, unveiling his new state budget this week, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said, “These programs should be a temporary safety net — not a hammock.” Walker said the same thing in a well-received speech at a GOP presidential forum in Iowa.
There’s a lot of difference between a spider web and a hammock. Bush’s message was absolutely clear: I’m not one of those guys.
In addition to those Americans caught in the web of big-government social welfare programs, Bush also discussed millions more who live “on the edge of economic ruin.”
“Something is holding them back,” Bush said. “Not a lack of ambition. Not a lack of hope. Not because they are lazy or see themselves as victims … ” As Bush sees it, the “something” holding poor Americans back is the burdensome intrusion of government.
Compare that to Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” hidden-camera video from the 2012 campaign. “There are 47 percent who are with (Obama),” Romney said, “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”
Bush’s message in Detroit was plain and simple: I am as far from Mitt Romney as is humanly possible.
But Bush is doing more than just distancing himself from Romney and Ryan — or 2016 rival Walker. He’s returning to the original Bush blueprint that won for his father and later for his brother.
In 1988, George H.W. Bush, running for president after two terms as Ronald Reagan’s vice president, sought to distinguish himself from the image of the Reagan administration as cruel and insensitive to the needs of poor Americans. “I want a kinder, gentler nation,” Bush said in the most memorable passage of his 1988 convention speech.
The preparation of that speech offered a peek into what would become the Bush family strategy. Bush sent speechwriter Peggy Noonan a note which said, “I know what drives me … Everyone matters.” In her book “What I Saw at the Revolution,” Noonan described how she also received “a list of words that had special meaning for him” — a list that included “kindness,” “caring,” “decency” and “heart.”
“He spoke with a gentleness that was striking,” Noonan wrote of Bush. “This was the genesis of ‘I want a kinder, gentler nation.'”
Bush won the presidency, and a family template was set. In 2000, George W. Bush ran by promoting himself as a “compassionate conservative,” which, like “kinder, gentler,” suggested, without flat-out saying so, that there was something wrong with other Republicans.
Now comes Jeb Bush. There are conservatives who will gag at what he’s doing, just like older ones gagged at “kinder, gentler” and “compassionate conservative.” But Jeb’s critics will have to confront this question: Can they name any Republicans not named Bush who have been elected president in the last 30 years? The fact is, the Bushes are the only Republicans who have cracked the code for winning the White House in more than a generation. Maybe that will change in 2016, but Jeb Bush will have his supporters.
Jeb speaks of George H.W. Bush with enormous reverence. “My dad is the greatest man alive, and if anybody disagrees, we’ll go outside,” he said in Detroit. Now, he’s doing more than just paying tribute. He’s adapting his father’s game for 2016.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.