Jeb’s Strategy With the Christian Right: Osmosis

If you are used to thinking of Jeb Bush as this Establishment Republican that hard-core conservatives–including the Christian Right–mistrust, this little nugget from a recent National Journal piece by Tim Alberta and Tiffany Stanley might be a jarring reminder of the long reach of Jeb’s family:

[P]owerful Christian conservatives are operating what amounts to a stealth campaign on Bush’s behalf. Some are old allies from the Florida days; others are holdovers from George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns. Some are both, including Ralph Reed, president of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a longtime friend of Jeb’s who served as Southeast regional chairman of George W.’s 2004 reelection effort (and thus practically lived in Florida). Multiple GOP sources say that Reed has been urging Jeb Bush for several years to make a 2016 run and spoke with him recently to game out the campaign. Like many of the organizations that Bush’s supporters lead, Reed’s coalition demands impartiality from its leaders, so Reed can’t openly back his man—unless, as some suspect will happen, Reed ultimately decides to join the campaign officially.

This makes Jeb’s decision to blow off the big Iowa cattle-call of Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition this weekend a bit more interesting, eh? Seems Jeb would prefer quiet consultations with his close friend Ralph Reed to open pandering. And indeed, that’s the theme that comes through from stem to stern in the Alberta/Stanley article, which begins with Jeb simultaneously refusing a formal vetting session with Iowa Christian Right kingpin Bob Vander Plaats while trying to charm him privately. We also learn that last summer Jeb flew out to Colorado to hobnob with the leadership of Focus on the Family, and spent a whole day with Russell Moore, the highly influential head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He’s extremely close to the president of Florida’s Ave Maria University, sort of the Harvard of hyper-traditionalist Catholicism (and the site of Rich Santorum’s now-famous “spiritual warfare” speech). And he has the support and advice of Mark DeMoss, who was the Romney campaign’s chief liaison to conservative evangelicals in 2012–not to mention the positive memories of many Christian Right folk about his role in the Terri Schiavo saga of 2005.

At a minimum, if Jeb wins the GOP nomination, he will not have to waste time on any courtship of conservative Christians. But at a time when (a) some Christian Right leaders like Russell Moore are expressing a preference for less noisy and more strategically minded political champions and (b) there will be an awful lot of the noisy types in the field, Bush may be quietly competing already with Scott Walker for stealth religion-based support. And he doesn’t really even have to blow many dog whistles: it’s more a strategy of osmosis, where Christian Soldiers learn to view him as a comrade-in-arms who is all the more effective for trying not to set off too many alarms in the secular-socialist enemy camp.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.