Jeb Bush's 2016 Move Fuels Democratic Debate

If he captures the GOP nomination—and a share of the minority vote—Democrats will urgently need to boost their appeal among whites.

Jeb Bush's announcement this week that he will "actively explore" a 2016 presidential candidacy adds new urgency to the debate among Democrats that Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York launched with a sharply worded speech late last month.

Schumer's broadside drew attention mostly because he insisted his fellow Democrats, after completing the economic stimulus package in 2009, blundered by passing President Obama's health reform law rather than unspecified other "middle-class-oriented programs" that might have directly benefited more average families. But the speech was also a thoughtful analysis of his party's difficulties with middle-class voters. Although Schumer didn't specify, his remarks referred to the white middle class, because Democrats retain lopsided advantages among minority voters in that income bracket.

Jeb Bush makes discussion about the Democratic standing with the white middle class more relevant because he's well-positioned to recapture ground with minorities in 2016. In a party that has grown more populist and militant, the former Florida governor would face a more arduous path to the nomination than his older brother George W. did in 2000. And if Bush did run, he would confront enormous pressure to tack right in ways that could alienate minority voters; for instance, he's already condemned Obama's executive action providing legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants.

But if the younger Bush wins the nomination without tilting further, he could be a formidable general-election competitor for Hispanics and Asian Americans. He speaks Spanish fluently, has a Mexican-American wife, backs the Common Core education reform, and has said immigrants who entered the country illegally seeking better conditions for their children committed "an act of love." If Bush maintains, much less clarifies, his somewhat-hazy support for a legislated pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, his opportunity will widen.

That's a real threat to Democrats in 2016, because their recent weakness among whites leaves them with little margin for error. Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the six presidential elections since 1992. That has demonstrated that the party's modern coalition can capture the White House despite big deficits among whites, especially those who are older or lack college degrees: No Democratic nominee over that period has won more than 44 percent of all white voters, according to exit polls. Obama carried just 39 percent of them in 2012.

But overcoming those weak performances with whites has required Democratic nominees to consistently capture roughly four-fifths of minorities, who have more than doubled their share of the vote since 1992. It's no coincidence that the only Republican presidential nominee who has carried the popular vote since 1988—George W. Bush in 2004—is also the only one who has held his Democratic opponent to less than 78 percent of the combined two-party vote cast by minorities. It wouldn't take much Republican improvement among minorities in 2016 to shift the discussion toward why Democrats are struggling so badly with whites (who also provided Republicans about three-fifths of their votes in each of the past three House elections, the GOP's largest congressional advantages ever).

Schumer in his speech offered some pertinent answers to that question—but also dodged other issues that contribute to the Democrats' challenge, especially with what he called "the core white working class." His broad conclusion rings true: Middle-class whites have soured on Democrats largely because they have lost faith that an activist government can improve their lives in a globalizing, technology-tossed economy. Against that backdrop, Schumer argued that the Affordable Care Act (which he praised substantively) hurt politically because it helped Republicans convince strained middle-class voters that Democrats were focused on "someone else, not you"—specifically, the one-sixth of Americans without health insurance.

Polls indeed show that most whites believe the health care law will benefit the poor, and not people like them. The irony of Schumer's critique is that since the early 1990s, many Democratic strategists had believed that guaranteeing universal access to health care offered their best chance of convincing middle-class voters (especially whites) that activist government could tangibly improve their lives. The fact that so many whites—particularly those without college degrees—instead viewed Obama's plan as another transfer program to the poor shows how much harder it may be than Schumer suggested to rekindle white enthusiasm for government activism.

Today, social liberalism aimed at college-educated and single whites, especially women, on issues like abortion, gay rights, and contraception is the Democrats' best asset in the white electorate. The tension (which Schumer skirted) is that those cultural commitments, now almost universally endorsed in the party, further antagonize many of the working-class whites the senator wants to court with "middle-class" economic programs like college aid.

If Democrats choose Hillary Clinton, her identity as the first female nominee should produce some gains with socially liberal white women. Continued economic recovery might help with whites, too.

But no one should underestimate how many hurdles Democrats must surmount to meaningfully improve their vote among whites—or how urgently they might need to do so if Jeb Bush can capture the GOP nomination without abandoning an inclusive appeal.