Six months after President Obama's 2008 landslide victory swept Democrats into power across the country, Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, and Eric Cantor sat down at a suburban Washington pizzeria to talk policy. They spent that May weekend arguing that the GOP's best path back into power was to improve the party's battered image by advocating reforms for education, immigration, and the economy. Cantor saw the session as a rebranding exercise, offering mostly platitudes about having a conversation with the American people. Romney used the event as early preparation for his second presidential campaign, mostly sticking to talking points. But Jeb Bush came prepared with a slew of creative proposals to test out at the town hall, like charging lower tuition to students pursuing high-end degrees in engineering and science.
After the event ended, several reporters (myself included) chased after Bush to ask him the inevitable questions about his interest in running for president. He was visibly annoyed, lamenting that Washington reporters only ask about the political horse race and have no interest in policy.
With Bush's announcement Tuesday that he's forming an exploratory committee for president, he'll be testing the proposition that being a policy wonk sells politically. In discussing preparations for a run this week, Bush confidently declared he wouldn't pander to Republican voters, sticking to his principles on immigration and education reform. In principle, the argument is refreshing. In practice, however, it ignores political reality.
The organization that Cantor launched (the National Council for America) never got off the ground despite the hype. Republicans won back control of Congress simply by running against an unpopular president, not by offering a set of solutions to fix the country's struggling economy. Despite being House majority leader, Cantor lost his primary to an obscure opponent—in part because he overestimated the political reward of pitching lofty reforms and ignored the day-to-day dissatisfaction from his own constituents. In his second presidential campaign, Romney struggled to lock up the nomination against a deeply conservative field and was unable to capitalize on Obama's mediocre approval ratings.
Other Republicans have talked in high-minded fashion about selling conservative reforms to GOP voters, but found there wasn't much political benefit in doing so. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie became famous for his tough talk against wasteful government and teachers unions in his first term, but has all but abandoned advocating new ideas since campaigning for reelection. Lately, the famously outspoken governor has avoided policy questions on immigration (despite traveling in Mexico!) and on the Senate report on the CIA's interrogation techniques. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has gotten little political traction promoting reforms on health care, energy, education, and national security, and he's careful to frame his ideas in opposition to Obama. Once a supporter of the Common Core educational standards that Jeb Bush champions, Jindal now compares them to Soviet central planning.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Jeb Bush acolyte who is mulling a presidential campaign of his own, learned firsthand the political risk in embracing change. By championing comprehensive immigration reform, Rubio alienated much of the conservative base and got sidetracked from other issues that could also broaden the party's appeal. Bush is an equally enthusiastic proponent of immigration reform, but unlike Rubio, he plans to continue pushing it in a GOP primary. Rubio responded this year by delivering a series of speeches centered on economic opportunity, but now Bush's planned candidacy puts a crimp in his path to the nomination.
Candidates want to be seen as having a detailed blueprint on how to get the country back on track, but it's those very details that lead to unintended consequences. Republican officials confidently promoted comprehensive immigration reform as a surefire way to improve the party's standing with Hispanics, but blowback from the base and resistance from the public tempered the enthusiasm. The political benefits of courting Hispanics was offset by the risk of alienating the GOP's base of working-class whites.
Education reform is a rare issue that unites elements of the Democratic and Republican parties, but the details of improving accountability spark intense opposition. Some conservatives oppose any top-down reforms emanating from Washington, while some liberals resist a one-size-fits-all system hamstringing teacher creativity. Not to mention that the sprawling educational bureaucracy, the target of many reforms, is a reliable source of employment.
Cutting entitlements to balance the budget is another issue that is embraced by government reformers, but is very hard to win support for politically. Polls show that even the most conservative voters oppose cutting Social Security or Medicare benefits. Romney's choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate was intended to send the message that he was committed to making the tough choices to get the country's economy back on track. In reality, including one of the GOP's most respected fiscal reformers carried little benefit for the Republican ticket.
Last week, Bush said that to make a campaign successful, he must "lose the primary to win the general." But it's important for him to make it clearer that he's criticizing the primary process, yet not dismissing the Republican Party's voters. A majority of the GOP electorate is inherently skeptical of government's ability to do good, even when it's used to promote market-based reforms. Those feelings have intensified under Obama, who has aggressively expanded government's reach and relied on executive orders as a substitute for working with Congress to pass legislation. Obama's administration is filled with technocrats who confidently believe they're smarter than the average American.
Bush is something of a conservative technocrat himself, focusing his efforts on figuring out how to make government work most effectively—not on cutting it down to size. He'd probably find common ground with liberal former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, whose book Citizenville argued that in order for Democrats to make the case for a more activist government, they needed to innovate from within first.
But that's not how many Republican voters feel, and it goes well beyond the tea-party wing of the party. In September, Gallup found that only 41 percent of respondents thought that "government should do more to solve the country's problems." Bush can't afford to simply dismiss the conservative critics and run a general-election strategy from the outset. He'll need to aggressively win the debate from within.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.