Gaffe Track: Don't Ask Jeb for Any 'Free Stuff,' Black Voters

Kevork Djansezian / AP
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The candidate: Jeb Bush

The gaffe: At an event near Charleston, South Carolina, a man noted the mostly white crowd and asked Bush how he’d win over and include black voters. “Our message is one of hope and aspiration,” Bush said. “It isn’t one of division, and get in line, and we’ll take care of you with free stuff. Our message is one that is uplifting—that says you can achieve earned success."

The defense: In 2012, Mitt Romney said, “I hope people understand this, your friends who like Obamacare, you remind them of this, if they want more stuff from government tell them to go vote for the other guy—more free stuff.” After the election, he said, “The president’s campaign focused on giving targeted groups a big gift.” At least Bush acknowledges there’s another way to win black voters.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Even with that slight improvement, this isn’t good. (There’s a reason Romney’s comments were widely decried, including by Republicans.) First, it tells black voters that the patrician Bush thinks they vote Democrat mostly for giveaways, which is a bit insulting. Second, and more importantly, it reinforces a false idea that whites don’t receive federal-assistance “gifts”—a majority do. Third, it ignores the fact that tax cuts for high-earners, like the ones Bush has proposed, are very much “free stuff.” It turns out voters of all stripes like gifts!

The moral: It’s always better to give than receive, but it is essential to give if you wish to receive votes.