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Jeb Bush's Biggest Problem

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.”
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Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, told the Wall Street Journal's CEO Council this week that if he runs for president in 2016, he'll avoid courting Republican primary voters in ways that alienate the rest of the electorate, and he's willing to risk losing the primaries in consequence.

Bush allowed that this approach would be hard to pull off. But recent history suggests it might be harder for Bush than for other candidates -- because he may not have enough trust from conservatives to address the party's central problem.

Republican strategists often cite Mitt Romney's immigration position in 2012 as an example of what their party should avoid. To fend off primary challengers, Romney took a hard line on illegal immigrants, saying they should "self-deport." Exit polls suggest that Romney won a smaller share of Hispanic voters -- only 27 percent -- than other recent Republican candidates, surely in part as a result of that position.

Yet even if Romney had gotten the same share of Hispanics as George W. Bush in 2004 -- about 40 percent -- he still wouldn't have won the election. The party's most serious disadvantage in recent presidential contests is that voters don't think its agenda would promote the economic interests of most Americans. That perception affects the votes of Hispanics and non-Hispanics alike.

Romney didn't see the party's problem this way. Even if he had, he might not have come up with an attractive middle-class economic agenda. And even if he had overcome both those hurdles, he would've had a final handicap: The Republican Party, and especially its activists, didn't trust him enough to let him advance unorthodox policies or try innovative campaign tactics.

Bush has a similar problem. His record is very conservative. But in recent years, he's made more headlines for disagreeing with conservatives than for supporting them. He's broken with them on both immigration (he favors granting legal status to many unauthorized immigrants) and education (he supports the Common Core initiative to create uniform standards for K-12 schools). As I've argued here before, Bush can still win the nomination: Because most of his primary votes would come from the center and left of the party, he doesn't need to win big among the conservatives most fired up about immigration and Common Core.

But Bush's stand on Common Core won't help him much in the general election. For the most part, it isn't an issue of federal policy. So he has stumbled into a fight with the party base that won't yield him any long-term political gains. And while his stand on immigration could arguably help his chances in 2016, it doesn't solve the party's basic economic problem. The risk is that these stances will exhaust Republicans' tolerance for heterodoxy, and leave Bush with less room to adopt a new economic platform. A nominee who conservatives viewed as an ideological soul mate might have more leeway.

Bush isn't the only candidate facing this constraint. Senator Rand Paul -- who is weighing a campaign of his own -- has also deviated from the Republican line on some issues, notably foreign policy and civil liberties. He might therefore be tempted to run as the most unimaginative, down-the-line conservative possible on other issues, and especially on economics.

Maybe Bush can overcome this dynamic. Maybe he can do just what his party needs for victory in 2016. But if I'm right that Republicans need to show they're responsive to the economic concerns of most people, not just those in boardrooms, and that to do so they need the trust of the most conservative voters in the party -- well, then maybe telling a group of CEOs that he's willing to tick those voters off isn't the best way to start. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net