Jeb’s Got the Wrong Music, Not Just the Wrong Words

The emerging CW on Jeb Bush’s likely presidential campaign is that with the help (financial and otherwise) of the Republican Establishment he, like Mitt Romney, will be able to overcome conservative scruples about his positions on this or that issue and head towards the general election able with some self-contortions to campaign as a “moderate.” So yeah, early-state voters may be annoyed at his support for Common Core and his lack of interest in deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants, but they’ll get over it.

But Peter Beinart suggests in an Atlantic column today that Jeb doesn’t just have the wrong “words”–individual policy positions–for some conservative tastes, but may initially have the wrong “music”–an overarching theme that is pretty inconsistent with Republican thinking on economics across the full spectrum of party attitudes:

If Jeb Bush is trying to show Republicans that he’s conservative enough to be their nominee, he has a strange way of showing it. Consider the manifesto of his newly created political action committee, The Right to Rise. It defines income inequality as a core economic problem: “While the last eight years have been pretty good ones for top earners, they’ve been a lost decade for the rest of America … the income gap is real.” In today’s GOP, that’s edgy enough. In a Pew poll last spring, only 19 percent of Republicans called the divide between rich and poor a “very big problem.” And when asked why that gap exists, a plurality of Republicans said it was because the poor don’t work as hard.

But from a conservative perspective, Bush’s real heresy is his PAC’s name itself: “The Right to Rise.”

Beinart argues, and I think he’s right, that talking as though there’s some “right” to succeed–as opposed to the opportunity to succeed or fail–is pretty alien to the contemporary conservative zeitgeist. And Bush seems to be going out of his way to embrace this dangerous idea:

In the 2011 Wall Street Journal op-ed in which Bush first borrowed the phrase “Right to Rise” from Paul Ryan (how Ryan feels about that borrowing is unclear), he actually did say that Americans also have the right to fall. “We need to let people take risks,” Bush wrote. “We need to let people fail. We need to let people suffer the consequences of bad decisions.”

But now that he’s running for president as the Republican who can win over non-Republicans, Jeb has jettisoned that part. His PAC’s mission statement begins, “We believe passionately that the Right to Rise—to move up the income ladder based on merit, hard work and earned success—is the central moral promise of American economic life.” But it never mentions American’s right to not rise, or anything about the risks that capitalism brings.

I should hope that Jeb doesn’t intend to deliver the bad news about capitalism to Republican audiences (which will take it as good news that Bush understands the unworthy will be crushed by the remorseless engines of the almighty Market) via dog whistles; that’s how Mitt Romney wound up talking about the 47%. In the meantime, he needs more sure-footed message-meisters. Beinart is correct: “the Right to Rise” does not sound very Republican.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.