Why Jeb Bush Can’t Bypass Conservatives

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
Font Size:

Before Jeb Bush announced he was “actively exploring” a presidential bid came news he was just as actively seeking a way to avoid appealing to conservatives. (The Bushies prefer the word “pandering.”)

The would-be King Bush III consulted one of the country’s foremost experts on excelling in the Republican Party without being too conservative: Arizona Sen. John McCain.

“I just said to him, ‘I think if you look back, despite the far right’s complaints, it is the centrist that wins the nomination,'” McCain told Bush, according to The New York Times.

It’s definitely true that the establishment candidate usually wins the Republican presidential nomination. The only two exceptions since World War II are Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.

But taking McCain’s advice is easier said than done. Conservatives have been inching closer to taking down the establishment in the GOP presidential primaries.

Let’s consider McCain’s own case. When he really ignored conservatives by running for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination on a platform of campaign finance reform, no tax cuts for the rich and denouncing prominent social conservatives, he lost the nomination.

McCain’s leftward march eased George W. Bush’s path to the nomination. Jeb Bush’s older brother also ran to the left of the national Republican brand in important respects — he accused the Gingrich Congress of trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor and touted compassionate conservatism — but he didn’t bypass the right. Dubya co-opted the right.

George W. Bush spent much of 1999 reaching out to conservative intellectuals. More importantly, as an evangelical he quickly made himself the candidate of the Christian right. This made it impossible for a movement conservative put together a big enough base to challenge Bush from the right. McCain challenged Bush from the left and the rest was history.

McCain won only seven states (mostly open primaries where Democrats and independents could vote) and received half as many popular votes as Dubya.

When McCain finally did win the Republican nomination eight years later, he had to flip-flop on the Bush tax cuts (he campaigned in favor of making them permanent), his own immigration bill, the border fence and the Christian right.

Only after Rudy Giuliani ceded New Hampshire and the top three candidates to his right split the conservative vote did McCain recover from tacks to the center that nearly destroyed his presidential campaign.

Establishment Republicans keep beating movement conservatives for four reasons. First, many conservatives support the establishment front-runner over one of their own to ensure a place at the table.

This was true when religious right leaders like Jerry Falwell endorsed George H.W. Bush in 1988 over Pat Robertson. Robertson and Ralph Reed returned the favor in 1996 when they backed Bob Dole over Pat Buchanan. Many mainline Reaganites went for Bush 41 in ’88. The American Conservative Union’s David Keene was a longtime Dole supporter.

Second, the conservative vote is often split between multiple candidates while the establishment vote is unified. When McCain, the man whose wisdom Jeb now seeks, won the nomination there were three top-tier candidates — Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson — vying for Republicans to his right.

Finally, the conservative with the most money and best organization frequently flops with the primary voters, leaving some candidate on a shoestring budget to compete with front-runner. Think Rick Santorum over Rick Perry, Huckabee over Romney and Thompson, Buchanan over Phil Gramm and Robertson over Jack Kemp.

If Perry or Thompson had lived up to the hype, it’s quite possible Romney or McCain would have lost the nomination.

Perhaps that will happen again in 2016. Potentially well-funded sitting Republican governors, like Scott Walker, or incumbent senators, like Rand Paul or Ted Cruz, could lose ground to Ben Carson.

This time around, it’s equally possible that the establishment will be split between Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. Marco Rubio may compete for some of Bush’s donor base. There are plenty of conservatives who could take the plunge who have run something bigger than a pizza chain.

The poll that so far shows Bush doing the best still has him running well behind his father or brother at a comparable point in the campaign. In fact, his numbers are weaker than Giuliani’s in 2007. Giuliani, who was counting on Florida to carry him through, didn’t win a single primary.

Even successful establishment candidates must “pander” to conservatives. History hasn’t been kind to the candidates who have given them the finger, from McCain 2000 to Jon Huntsman in 2012.

The best way to run for president without conservative support is to seek the Democratic nomination.

W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.