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Jeb Bush's To-do List: Off to a bumpy start, he can still recover

Fred Barnes

By Fred Barnes

Published June 24, 2015

The best moment in Jeb Bush's announcement speech last week wasn't choreographed. As he spoke, a group of protesters rose from their seats. They wore T-shirts with "Legal Status Is Not Enough" emblazoned across the front and succeeded in interrupting Bush. The crowd yelled at the protesters as they began to leave the event.

Bush looked up at them and paused before speaking. "The next president," he declared, "will pass meaningful immigration reform, so that will be solved—not by executive order."

There was more to this incident than a show of moxie and a dig at President Obama for overstepping on immigration. A message, offered spontaneously, was packed into Bush's 17 words: He won't change his strategy for winning the Republican presidential nomination, and if elected he'll push for immigration reform.

With his formal declaration of candidacy, Bush's campaign is at a crossroads. He could go negative and harshly attack his two strongest rivals, Florida senator Marco Rubio and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. Several of his advisers have told reporters he will do just that. But that tactic would be uncharacteristic of Bush. It would be a mistake.

A smarter and more positive approach would be to continue the seamless campaign Bush has planned from the beginning. That means stressing the same issues now that he will, assuming he wins the Republican presidential nomination, in the general election. This is contrary to the widely practiced strategy of leaning right to win the nomination, then veering to the center in the general.

It means he will have to talk about immigration and Common Core, issues on which his stands infuriate many conserv-atives. Ducking them would only make him look weak and irresolute. Bush aides insist he won't hide, though immigration wasn't in his announcement speech and came up only when he responded to the protesters.

But there's one big change Bush has to make and appears to have already begun. That involves his impressive and quite conservative record as governor of Florida from 1998 to 2006. He talks about it in his speeches, but he needs to bring it up in a more compelling context. At the moment, conservatives complain Bush has drifted sharply to the center since he left the governor's office.

Bush has to confront that notion head on. It's killing him with conservatives. Sure, he says how conservative his record was. But audiences show little interest in the subject. Instead, they are more inclined to pepper Bush with questions about immigration and Common Core.

Which leads to this conclusion: Bush must declare that what he did for Florida, he'll do for the entire country. Should he get into specifics—and he'll need to—that will intensify the conservative light in which his record shines. 

The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal captured Bush's record best: "Mr. Bush left his fast-growing state's government relatively smaller and its tax burden lower. He reformed tort laws and eliminated racial preferences. He was in particular a pioneer in education reform, especially school choice. .??.??. Another Bush asset is his proven ability to attract non-Republican voters. He stepped down as governor with a nearly 60 percent approval rating in a state that Barack Obama carried twice and Bill Clinton once."

From the cold facts of his record Bush emerges as a bold reformer and advocate of conservative change. Other GOP candidates can match some of Bush's achievements but not all of them—that's what Bush is in a position to argue.

In his announcement, Bush touched on bringing his Florida style to Washington. As governor, he used his "veto power to protect our taxpayers from needless spending," he said. "And if I am elected president, I'll show Congress how that's done."

He suggested his goal of creating nationwide "4 percent growth and the 19 million new jobs that come with it" was realistic because he had done the equivalent of that at the state level.

And Bush bragged about changing the political culture of Tallahassee, Florida's capital, and said he could do the same for Washington. "A self-serving attitude can take hold in any capital," he said. "I was a governor who refused to accept that as the normal or right way of conducting the people's business. .??.??. We don't need another president who merely holds the top spot among the pampered elites of Washington."

Stressing his gubernatorial record has an additional benefit. It helps differentiate him from his older brother, George W. Bush. The contrast between what Jeb did in Florida and George did as Texas governor and as president is significant. Jeb reformed Medicaid and put in place a school voucher system that was recently copied in Nevada. He cut spending more aggressively, and so on.

Doing this would not amount to repudiation of his brother or, for that matter, his father, George H.W. Bush. But it would buttress Jeb's claim to be "his own man." It's a claim that needs buttressing. And he doesn't need to draw the contrast. That's what surrogates are for.

One more thing. The Bush campaign lacks discipline. There was no reason to reveal the goal of raising $100 million. It cast Bush as a candidate linked closely to the wealthy. And why leak the dubious plan for Bush to attack his top opponents as never before? That served no purpose. Besides, it probably would hurt more than help.

But Bush alone was responsible for his bumpy start as a candidate. "Bush's problem has mainly been one of performance," Molly Ball of the Atlantic wrote. His speeches have been uninspiring. His announcement speech, in a college gym in Miami, was a distinct improvement. Best of all was the clash with protesters. More of that and the Bush campaign may soar after all.

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Fred Barnes is Executive Editor at the Weekly Standard.

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