On Wednesday, Jeb Bush delivered the biggest speech of his young campaign in Detroit, Michigan, where he promised to lay out a positive agenda in the months ahead. “I will offer a new vision,” the former Florida governor said. “A plan of action that is different than what we have been hearing in Washington D.C.” Political analysts quickly tried to parse Bush’s words to discern any hints about that plan of action.
Those hints are hard to find. Read the transcript; it's an utterly ordinary speech, filled with bromides against liberalism and big government. Bush cited rising income inequality, stagnant wages, and slow growth as problems that demand big solutions. He talked about the opportunity gap and mentioned Uber and deregulation. And he used the downfall of Detroit as a warning sign for the rest of country. Nothing new, in other words.
Bush did try to spin conservative talking points in a more positive, wonky manner. His most notable comments came about halfway through, when he criticized Washington, D.C.—as in, the Obama administration—for “recklessly degrading the value of work, the incentive to work, and the rewards of work.”
We have seen them cut the definition of a full-time job from 40 to 30 hours, slashing the ability of paycheck earners to make ends meet. We have seen them create welfare programs and tax rules that punish people with lost benefits and higher taxes for moving up those first few rungs of the economic ladder.
In the first sentence, Bush is referring to the provision under the Affordable Care Act that requires employers with more than 50 workers to offer health insurance to any employee that works more than 30 hours. Republicans have criticized the rule as incentivizing employers to reduce their workers’ hours below that threshold. They have suggested changing the definition of a full-time employee to 40 hours per week—a change that the Congressional Budget Office says would increase the deficit and lower the number of Americans with health insurance. Even some conservatives like Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs, have come out against it. But it’s a good sound bite—one that shows Bush is aware of ongoing policy arguments in Washington—so he jumped on it.
“Instead of a safety net to cushion our occasional falls,” he added, “they have built a spider web that traps people in perpetual dependence. We have seen them waive the rules that helped so many people escape welfare.”
I had not heard any politician compare the safety net to a “spider web” before, and based on a quick Google search, Bush has not made the comparison before either. It’s reminiscent of Representative Paul Ryan’s analogy of the safety net as a “hammock” that traps the poor in poverty, an analogy that has been harshly criticized. But while a hammock evokes images of laziness and gives agency to the poor, a spider web suggests that the poor are trapped. With many Americans believing that Republicans don’t care enough for the poor, you can understand why Bush settled on the “spider web” analogy.
But does Bush actually reject the “maker and taker” rhetoric? At the Washington Post, Greg Sargent argues yes—or at least that Bush will do so rhetorically. “Message: Jeb Bush will not be 47-percent-ed. He will not be Mitt-ed,” Sargent writes. “He will present a conservative pro-economic-freedom case without committing the fatal political misstep of showing contempt for those who currently depend on government in any form.” That seems broadly right, at least insofar as we can determine Bush’s rhetorical strategy from one speech. Yet, it’s always a tight line to blame government for making the poor dependent without actually blaming the poor themselves.
And when Bush argues that Obama tried to “waive the rules that helped so many people escape welfare,” he’s harkening back to an old, disproven conservative meme against the administration. During the 2012 election, Mitt Romney argued that Obama was undoing welfare reform by offering states waivers allow them to forego the welfare work requirements, as long as they accomplished the goal of the law— moving welfare recipients to work. In fact, Republican governors had requested the waivers. The Washington Post fact checker gave Romney four Pinnochios for the baseless assertion. But Bush has brought the attack line back.
Overall, Bush seemed to be trying to use the same conservative talking points and attacks, with a more positive spin. Yet, it’s still hard to look at this speech and see what part of the Republican Party it appeals to, at least compared to his competitors. Florida Senator Marco Rubio has a far more comprehensive agenda at this point. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker offers a very conservative governing record and has won three statewide races in four years. Many Republican candidates have switched their economic message to focus on wages and inequality, if only to find a new attack against the president as the recovery strengthens.
Granted, this is just one speech. Bush has plenty of time to deliver concrete policy proposals. But there's something telling about the ordinariness of his speech, of its generic GOP talking points. There’s no natural constituency for his candidacy, at least in the primary. Bush has said that the GOP nominee must be willing to "lose the primary to win the general." In other words, to avoid taking far-right positions that doom the candidate in the general election.
Thought about in that light, Bush's speech makes more sense. Spinning conservative talking points in a positive light, while promising a new agenda, is a campaign platform that could appeal to the full electorate. If he somehow emerged as the Republican nominee, he could be a very credible challenger to Hillary Clinton. Yet, the underlying problem remains: He has to win the nomination. His willingness to lose the primary will, in all likelihood, prove self-fulfilling.
This isn't just his problem, though; it's the Republican Party's. The primary electorate makes it hard for a candidate like Bush, who despite being extremely conservative is nonetheless moderate compared to the other candidates, to win. It forces the eventual nominee to move to the right, eventually putting himself in an almost impossible position to win the general election. The complete blandness of Bush's speech Wednesday only underlines this dynamic.