Jeb! Has Too Many Opponents

Jeb Bush, who formally announced his candidacy Monday, has to run against an expanding field of other Republicans. If he’s nominated he’ll eventually have to run against the Democratic nominee (presumably Hillary Clinton), of course. But he also has to decide how much of the race will be about running against Obama and the past eight years. And he has to figure out how much to run against his brother’s presidency.

In Bush’s announcement speech Monday, we heard references to multiple opponents. The former Florida governor mentioned Obamacare and slow economic growth. He mentioned Obama’s speech earlier this year at the National Prayer Breakfast, where the president made controversial remarks about the Crusades in the context of religious conflict. And several lines were devoted to criticizing the Obama administration’s foreign policy (Obama-Clinton-Kerry), with specific references to Israel and Cuba. Obama’s foreign policy has been controversial, and he’s struggled to reconcile a changing security environment with the promises he made in 2008. At the same time, it’s foreign policy that’s caused Bush – and the other Republican candidates – to have so many difficult interviews. Emphasizing his differences with Obama’s foreign policy makes it harder to run against his brother’s record.

There were also a couple of subtle moments in the speech where he was clearly trying to forge an identity as “his own man.” He made a reference to workers who haven’t had a raise in fifteen years. By my count, the last good year for those workers was the year his brother was elected. The education ideas in the speech were also at odds with the George W. Bush’s reforms – Jeb asserted that the federal government should never be in charge of education standards. And the foreign policy talk was heavy on criticisms of Obama- but also made careful reference to alliances.

Bush also criticized his presumptive opponent, Hillary Clinton, tying her to Obama’s signature health care legislation- namely, to the contraception mandate. It’s probably smart strategy to tie Clinton to Obama’s more controversial moves, and to focus on her rather than Obama. At the same time, how to address the Clinton factor presents a bit of a dilemma for Bush. He’ll want to infuse his campaign with prospective messages rather than running against a lame duck. But too many references to Clinton, and he runs a few risks. One is accidentally highlighting the fact that she’s a strong candidate. Another is assuming too much about the nomination and thus contradicting today’s message that, in the Bush’s own words, “It’s nobody’s turn. It’s everybody’s test, and it’s wide open.”

With that statement, Bush acknowledged a wide and growing field of Republican hopefuls. It’s not clear yet which are serious contenders – but it seems increasingly likely that a few of them are. And the petty intra-party fight probably doesn’t seem like a fully desirable strategy. Nevertheless, this leaves Bush in a position where he needs to think about how – other than being a Bush – his candidacy is distinct from that of Florida Senator Marco Rubio or Wisconsin governor Scott Walker.

What does it all mean? It’s hard to say, especially since it’s not really clear that campaigns or campaign rhetoric matter much beyond the margins. At the same time, presidential campaigns shape, reflect, and reinforce party ideology. They help make connections between the political choices on offer and the factors of concern to voters, like economic conditions.

With this in mind, the fact that Jeb Bush has a wealth of opponents has a few implications for his campaign. First, there’s really nothing here to suggest that his name is a liability. It’s likely that any Republican candidate would – and will – have to respond to W.’s legacy as the most recent Republican in office. That’s how political parties work. As Jonathan Bernstein has said, without the famous name, it’s not clear what would distinguish Jeb Bush from the less prominent candidates in the field. When it comes to the general election, there’s also plenty of baggage to go around. Hillary Clinton, after all, carries the baggage of her husband’s administration, her own time as First Lady, and her service in Obama’s cabinet.

On the other hand, if Bush’s strategy is to stress ideology and position his candidacy in opposition to the liberal ideas of Obama and Clinton, this undermines his claim to be the president who will get things done. It’s likely to be difficult for Bush to distance himself from liberal policies while also promising to succeed on immigration reform – something neither W. nor Obama could do. That will be hard to sell as a top conservative priority. Most of the challenges facing Jeb Bush over the next few months are pretty common: appeal to the party base, or move to the center? Run a mostly retrospective campaign or offer promises for the future?

But the real dilemma for Jeb Bush may be whether to stake out ideological ground or to emphasize competence and ability to “be practical” on issues that have the potential to cut across the parties, like immigration. If Bush chooses to press the pragmatism angle, he may not want to highlight ideology – even that of his opponents. Accusing the other candidate of being an ideologue and emphasizing your own common sense is a classic campaign move. With ideologically sorted parties, a pragmatic message might be harder to convey. You can be the conservative alternative or the pragmatic one, but probably not both. Valence and cross-cutting issues are elusive. Furthermore, campaigns bring lots of attention to the pathologies of politics: ideological intransigence, incompetence, lack of vision, too much vision. Candidates can’t define themselves in opposition to all of them at once.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.