The face of grownupism.

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Bloomberg

How Bush Runs as the Party Grown-Up

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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When Mike Huckabee accused President Barack Obama of forging a nuclear deal with Iran that would lead Jews to the "oven door," Jeb Bush made use of the moment. He could have asserted his pro-Israel credentials in different language. Or, sensing little gain in the transaction, he might have simply reiterated his condemnation of the administration's Iran policy.

Instead, Bush used the occasion to reinforce his own distance from his party's flammable fringe.

"Look, I’ve been to Israel -- not as many times as Mike Huckabee, who I respect," Bush said to MSNBC on Monday. "But the use of that kind of language, it’s just wrong. This is not the way we’re going to win elections, that’s not how we’re going to solve problems."

A good way to tell the Republican base that you share their values even if you don't speak their language is to signal concern that blunt talk will prove self-defeating -- costing votes in the general election. That's what Bush said; then he said something more interesting: that rhetoric like Huckabee's is "not how we're going to solve problems."

Solving problems is not high on the base's list of priorities, judging by the robust level of support for Donald Trump. The billionaire's invective-laden, policy-free and fact-challenged campaign has proved an effective conduit for rage. But Trump scarcely even pretends to be in the solutions business.

In one of the most remarkable political comments of recent years, Bush said last fall that a Republican candidate had to be willing to lose the primary to win the general election. Bush didn't have to explain why. His premise was widely understood as an expression of concern about his party's affinity for candidates promising a demolition derby in Washington.

So far, he's running as if he meant it. Bush's strategy might be called grownupism. He doesn't just turn down invitations to stoke anger, he treats them as opportunities to show restraint.

Trump's emergence appears to be aiding him. Trump hasn't simply shut off attention to competitors. He has, for the moment, locked down a group of voters who might ultimately make their way to a more viable Bush competitor, especially Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. (Ohio Governor John Kasich, by contrast, has probably been too accommodating of both government in general and Obama in particular by accepting Obamacare's expansion of Medicaid in his state. Any increase in his vote share is unlikely to be derived from the base.)  

Trump's success has allowed Bush to run not only as the unapologetic establishment candidate he is, but as a challenge to Trumpism and the anti-government extremism it represents. (At least what it represents this week; it's possible that Trumpism is not an ideologically fixed manifesto.) While many of his party's voters are dreaming of mass deportation of undocumented, largely Hispanic immigrants, Bush keeps finding ways to remind them why his Spanish is so fluent.

“We are very Hispanic in the sense that we speak Spanish at home,” Bush said to Telemundo -- in Spanish -- referring to his wife and children. “Columba is very Mexican. She is proud of her U.S. citizenship naturally, but we eat Mexican food at home. Our children are Hispanic in many aspects, and we don’t talk about that. But yes, the Hispanic influence in my family is something quite important in my life.”

None of this would be possible without the enormous assets Bush brings to the campaign -- his fundraising prowess, his name recognition and his family's political network. Without them, he would be an interesting GOP anomaly campaigning against gale-force winds.

Money and connections make Bush an establishment horse. But at least in the early going, a loud billionaire is preoccupying the voters most eager to thwart Bush's rise. Bush isn't the type to run a race with abandon. Trump is enabling him to run with extra restraint.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Jonathan I Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net