Mitt Romney's decision to not seek the Republican Party's presidential nomination set off a cavalcade of commentary regarding the political repercussion. One popular angle was that Jeb Bush would benefit because of his appeal as a moderate. At least what he is according to the Beltway press.
The day Romney dropped out of consideration CNN's Wolf Blitzer explained Bush's positioning as a “right of center, moderate Republican.” The next day, NPR's Ron Elving suggested Bush had more room to run on the “the center-right moderate establishment side.” This week, The Christian Science Monitor labeled Bush “the moderate former Florida governor,” while the New York Times suggested he was “out of touch” with the Republican Party because of his moderate ways, and that Bush would fit a pattern of Republicans selecting “relatively moderate presidential nominees.”
Note that for years, “moderate” has been media shorthand for candidates who enjoy national appeal; the ones with enough fortitude to stand up to elements of their own party and forge a path to the middle.
The Bush narrative had been in the works for months. “Jeb Bush Charts Moderate Path to the White House,” read a December headline at MarketWatch, the same month the Times announced Bush would seek the coveted “middle ground” with his possible candidacy. Yahoo News columnist Matt Bai tagged Bush as a “moderate Republican” last month, while NBC stressed his "centrist" path to the nomination.
The narrative for the former Florida governor is easy to follow: Eager to run as his own man, Jeb Bush the candidate won't abandon his core, common sense beliefs (i.e. he won't "bow down"). Instead, he stands ready to battle far-right cranks within his party.
It's true that on a vast array of issues, including taxes, climate change, abortion, repealing Obamacare (it's "clearly a job killer"), civil rights, right-to-die, gun control, relations with Cuba, legalizing marijuana, and crime, among others, Bush remains a far-right politician. (He once bragged he was “probably the most pro-life governor in modern times.”)
And that's why veteran Bush watchers in Florida remain confused by the “moderate” chatter. “A lot of the politicos and lobbyists and long-term reporters are kind of baffled by this idea that he is a centrist or a moderate,” Matt Dixon, a reporter in the Scripps-Tribune capital bureau and former statehouse reporter for the Florida Times Union of Jacksonville, told Media Matters' Joe Strupp. “His record as governor reflects some conservative and really Republican philosophies.”
Yet according to D.C. media elites crafting the 2016 storyline, Bush yearns for the “middle ground” of American politics. If this heavy-handed Bush branding sounds familiar -- complete with the softened edges -- it should. Think back to 2000.
Campaigning against a Democrat at a time when the U.S. economy under the Bill Clinton administration was registering historic gains, George W. Bush carved out a niche by marketing himself as a crossover Republican who touted the promise of tolerance, inclusion, and moderation.
The actual results once elected? President Bush governed as “the most conservative president we've had since probably Warren G. Harding--and perhaps ever,” according to historian David Greenberg.
So here we go again?
“Is 2016 going to be a repeat of the 2000 election, with a member of the Bush family able to sail into the White House above a more popular member of the Clinton team by successfully hoodwinking the public into thinking he's more moderate than he is?” asked Amanda Marcotte at Talking Points Memo last month. She noted that with the media's help in 2000, “huge numbers of the public were convinced that there wasn't any real difference between Bush and [Al] Gore.”
If he runs in the general election, Jeb Bush likely wants to replicate that phenomenon.
If you take a step back, the construct of the current coverage seems to be this: Bush is a “moderate” compared to grassroots activists within the GOP, which seems like an odd benchmark for the media to use when staking out the “middle ground.”
But if that is the benchmark being used, guess what? Compared to grassroots activists within the Democratic Party who are urging Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) to run from the left, Hillary Clinton would be considered a “moderate.” So why doesn't the press routinely praise her as a “middle ground” and “centrist”? I certainly haven't spotted that dominant trend in her coverage. And why do Republicans tend to be the only winners of the media's coveted “moderate” crown?
What do reporters use to hang the “moderate” label around Bush? Mostly they use just two issues: Education and immigration. Bush supports the education reform standard known as Common Core, and on immigration Bush supported the U.S. Senate's failed effort last year to get comprehensive immigration reform passed in Congress. (That seems to be driving right-wing radio's crusade against him.)
That's it. Those are Bush's shiny “moderate” credentials. Pretty thin, don't you think?
As the Arizona Republic reported last year, as 2014 drew to a close 15 Republican governors nationwide supported Common Core, including some Republicans in very red states, such as Oklahoma. So it's not as if Bush's Common Core backing places him way outside the Republican mainstream.
Meanwhile, he's a “moderate” rebel for supporting comprehensive immigration reform and thinks Congress should tackle the issue? That's a position that vast majority of Americans, and even most GOP voters support. Also, recall that in 2013 Bush appeared to stake out three different positions on immigration in the span of just a few days. Not exactly a model of political courage.
And again, that's why Florida observers remain puzzled by the Beltway media's rush to assign Bush the “moderate” crown.
From the Orlando Sentinel's Scott Maxwell: “He's conservative in the I-want-government-to-impose-my-values kinda way. He embraces the death penalty, opposes choice for women and fought embryonic stem-cell research.”
Bush biographer Matthew Corrigan agrees [emphasis added]:
During Bush's tenure, Florida also became one of the nation's most pro-gun states, with a variety of laws that lessened restrictions on ownership. Under Bush, the concept of the legal use of guns in self-defense was expanded to include the controversial Stand Your Ground law. Moreover, he effectively ended affirmative action in the public sector by executive order and also created a "faith-based" state prison.
Yes, Bush left office twelve years ago so his record as governor might not be a perfect reflection of his current beliefs. But based on what I've seen and heard over the years there's nothing from Bush's Florida time as governor that he's publicly disavowed, and there's little reason to think his presidential campaign would differ greatly from his Florida platform.
And by the way, during Bush's failed 1994 governor campaign he ran as an out-and-out right-wing ideologue, determined to execute more death row inmates, abolish the state's Department of Education, and “dismantle the welfare state.”
Electoral math suggests that in November 2016 Republicans need a nominee who can appeal to independent voters and reach beyond the party's base, primary voters. In other words, they need someone viewed as a “moderate.” Luckily for Jeb Bush, the press seems to be anxious to give him that title. Just like they once did for his brother.