Jeb’s Big Mistake (So Far)

While awaiting Jeb Bush’s appearance before a potentially hostile CPAC audience this afternoon, I took the risk of reading the latest Peggy Noonan column, and to my great surprise, it was quite coherent. Maybe Peggy, a good Catholic girl, has given up incoherence for Lent.

Republicans this year are not looking for Reagan. They’re looking for Churchill. They’re looking for the guy who knows the war is already here, not the guy who knows the war can be averted if we defeat the guys who would wage it. What is “the war”? Everything from scarily sluggish economic growth to long-term liabilities and deficits; from the melting away of the post-World-War-II order to the Mideast to domestic terrorism. Every four years there is frustration and argument; this year there is urgency.

What the Republican Party needs in a presidential candidate is not a centrist who can make the sale to conservatives in the primaries; it is a conservative who can win over centrists in the general election. That means the Republican nominee should be a man or woman who can redefine conservative thinking for current circumstances and produce policies that centrists and independents will find worthy of consideration.

This was in a column decidedly arguing it’s not Jebbie’s year, which won’t please Peggy’s old boss Poppy. The only problem with her analysis of what Republicans want “this year” is that it’s what they always want, at least for the last several decades. Sometimes they grudgingly nominate an “electable” candidate who isn’t self-evidently a True Conservative, and sometimes it just works out that way via the demolition derby of a competitive primary season (e.g., 2008). But Peggy’s right that Jeb’s going about this all wrong so far:

I am not sure Mr. Bush likes the base. If he doesn’t, it would explain some of his discomfort. I am wondering if he sees the base as a challenge, not a home, something he has to manage, not something he is of. He was perhaps referring to this in December when he said you have “to lose the primary to win the general.” Actually you have to win it, but to really succeed you have to show you share the base’s heart, that you understand its beginning points and align with it on essentials. When you disagree with it you address those issues among friends, and with confidence. You can’t cover up differences in a passive-aggressive way—at their feet when you really want to be at their throat.

The takeaway here is that Jeb erred grievously when he publicly made an electability argument for himself that depended on his ability to honk off “the base.” That sort of explicit triangulation is strange. I mean, even Bill Clinton didn’t announce the day after his Sister Souljah Speech that he was intentionally dissing an African-American celebrity to get a second look from old white men.

In 2012, there’s not much question Mitt Romney’s main credential (other than cash) was his implicit electability argument. But he never rubbed “the base’s” nose in it, did he? Even when he was basically in a one-on-one competition with Rick Santorum, he didn’t come right out and say “You really want to nominate a guy who lost by eighteen points to Bob Casey?” He let other people say it, but he claimed all along to be a candidate who shared base preoccupations, and sometimes he really delivered, as on the immigration issue.

It will be interesting to see at CPAC, where he’s decided to devote his whole twenty minutes to a Q&A from the reliable softball pitcher Sean Hannity, whether Jeb continues to make the mistake of treating electability as a straightforward credential he can rationally talk about to people who want to be driven to it reluctantly.

The irony is that the trait Peggy says Republicans are looking for was best exemplified by Jeb’s older brother in the 2000 cycle, in which he positioned himself all along as a movement conservative who just happened to have come up with a pitch or two that he figured would appeal to swing voters that particular year. But even that way of approaching the base would get a serious test from Scott Walker’s, which involves the claim that swing voters secretly want to be swept off their feet by an unapologetic conservative who contemptuously pushes aside opponents and ravages old liberal traditions like a rampaging Visigoth.

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.