Hillary Clinton’s announcement emulated the style of the presidency itself: vast, formal, the spotlight narrowly focused on one person. Jeb Bush’s announcement was that of a humble office-seeker facing a tough race: a rally in a compact space, lots of cheering and amateurish music, introductions of introductions, culminating in the candidate in open shirt jogging his way onto the stage. Message: I’m fit! Message: I’m accessible! Message: I’m unentitled!
Unlike Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush offered little in the way of an agenda. He reviewed highlights of his record as governor of Florida, diagnosed some general ills in the country, and offered a generic aspirational goal: 4 percent economic growth and 19 million new jobs.
The sharpest contrast he drew was in his long discussion of family. He referenced his presidential father and brother (but not by name), saluted his highly popular mother, and lavished praise on his wife, children, and grandchildren. “See, a loving, united family! Not like that other weird presidential family that will go unmentioned here today.”
But all of this was bunting. The central message of the announcement was that the GOP also has a history-making first to offer: after the first black president, as an alternative to the first female president, here is your chance at the first Hispanic president. Okay, maybe not literally and personally Hispanic, but close enough! The pre-rally music was all Spanish. The setting was Miami Dade College, which graduates more Hispanics than any other in the United States. Bush was introduced by the chair of the college’s board of trustees, a bilingual journalist, Helen Aguirre Ferre, and by his bicultural son, George P. Bush. Bush himself delivered some of his remarks in his fluent Spanish, for the benefit of “the many who can express their love of country in a different language.” In response to hecklers, he spontaneously reasserted his commitment to comprehensive immigration reform.
It’s a winning message for South Florida. How will it play elsewhere?
The most ingenious thing about the Bush speech is the way it played jujitsu with issues of entitlement and inheritance. The most quoted line in the speech will likely be this one: “Not a one of us deserves the job by right of resume, party, seniority, family, or family narrative. It’s nobody’s turn. It’s everybody’s test, and it’s wide open—exactly as a contest for president should be.” A few paragraphs up, however, Bush presented his family background in a much more audacious way. “In this country of ours, the most improbable things can happen. Take that from a guy who met his first president on the day he was born, and his second on the day he was brought home from the hospital.” Yes, incredible as it may seem, a person can run for president despite overcoming the handicap of being the son of one and the brother of another! Truly, this is a country where anything can happen—except, of course, a wage increase for middle-income workers. There, you’re moving from the realm of the improbable to the fantastical.
Jeb Bush acknowledged that latter trouble when he promised “growth that lifts up the middle class—all the families who haven’t gotten a raise in 15 years.” That last is an interesting number. 15 years takes us back to … 2000. All the way to the beginning of his brother’s presidency. The obvious question is: If your brother’s policies failed to deliver middle-class income growth, what are the different policies you’d offer in their place? That question went unanswered. In fact, you could write a pretty arresting presidential announcement based on the questions unanswered and the topics omitted from Jeb Bush's. “Healthcare” and “health”? Nowhere to be found. The environment? One reference—to over-regulation by the EPA. Retirement security for the baby boomers? Not there. Against the coming Clinton policy barrage, Bush will offer emotions, images, and bilingualism. If the Clinton campaign hopes to build a coalition of the disaffected and the alienated with a series of specific benefits and payouts, Bush seems to be seeking to revive his brother’s 2004 coalition with broad themes, unspecific commitments, and the promise of a compassionate heart.
After Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012, the Republican National Committee convened a post-mortem into the causes of the defeat. The project was co-chaired by Sally Bradshaw, whose day job is serving as Jeb Bush’s top political adviser. The report rejected any substantial policy changes and called instead for better technology, a softer tone, and developing an immigration message to appeal to Hispanics. That theory of the defeat will be theory of the Jeb Bush presidential campaign. At the core, however, not much has changed intellectually in the GOP since 2012, or really for that matter, since 1984: no more tangible help for the medical class, no acceptance of the principle of universal health coverage, no acknowledgement that most Americans are struggling with the same economic problems they struggled with long before the election of Barack Obama, no reckoning with climate change. Most arrestingly of all, in a speech that does touch again and again on America’s deteriorating position in the world, no mention of the most fundamental shift: China’s economic rise and the relative decline in U.S. power that has followed.
Same-old-Republicanism minus 47-percent insults is an improvement over same-old-Republicanism with insults. But same-old-Republicanism was losing even before Mitt Romney’s 47 percent gaffe, for reasons that could have been explained back in 2012—and that all too probably will be detailed by the post-mortem after the election of 2016.