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Jeb Bush's First Big Political Speech Fooled Everyone

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Jeb Bush gave his first big political speech since he announced his likely presidential candidacy on Wednesday, and the reviews have been predictable. Bush was light on specifics. Bush didn’t toss a bunch of red meat to the right. Bush is trying to cut a path through the GOP primary without veering too far from general electability, and that makes him hyper-cautious and a little bit boring.

"Mr. Bush offered few answers to address the problems he described," wrote New York Times political writer Jonathan Martin.

Bush gave "a meh-worthy speech, reading off a TelePrompTer with the enthusiasm of an asparagus-eating toddler," according to National Journal's Ron Fournier.

These observations aren’t mistaken. But they are somewhat atextual.

Bush sprinkled his speech with several subtle—in some instances contradictory—intimations, which unsurprisingly outline a steadfastly conservative agenda. But contrary to the impression he left on his audience, these hints don’t suggest that Bush will swear off the rightwing panders that made it so difficult for Republicans to appeal to a national electorate in 2012. Instead, Bush demonstrated an ability to serve them up obliquely enough to escape notice.

Where a more pugnacious conservative like Scott Walker refuses to mince his words, Bush minces them so finely it’s easy to overlook how alike they are to Walker’s in meaning. Unlike Bush, Walker isn’t unctuously mourning the rise of income inequality. But ultimately the two see the country’s economic challenges almost identically. To the extent that Bush believes inequality is a problem, he revealed on Wednesday that he has no intention of alleviating it by using federal power to distribute income downward, and, like Walker, he believes that the biggest structural force driving inequality is dependence on government.

“America’s moral promise isn’t broken when someone is wealthy,” Bush said. “It’s broken when achieving success is far beyond our imagination.”

That a Republican would oppose taxing the wealthy is unsurprising. But Bush was forswearing the use of wealth redistribution to alleviate structural inequality under just about any circumstance. If subsequent generations don’t exceed past ones, then the pot will shrink and the problem will, almost by definition, become one that “no tax, no new welfare program” can fix. The only way to boost incomes at the bottom is by encouraging work, and the only way to do that is to remove or weaken the very assistance programs that guard against extreme material deprivation.

This neatly teed up Bush’s central criticism of the Obama years.

For several years now, they have been 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. Instead of a safety net to cushion our occasional falls, they have built a spider web that traps people in perpetual dependence.

As metaphors for social insurance go, “spider web” sounds disgusting, but beats Paul Ryan’s idyllic “hammock” in that it at least treats beneficiaries as unwitting victims, rather than coddled malingerers. Ultimately, though, they amount to the same critique: When the government intervenes to support the poor and working classes, it captures them and saps them of ambition. And in Bush's mind, the thickest part of the web is the Affordable Care Act.

Bush wants “a government that makes it easier to work than not work,” and thus, “fewer laws restricting the labor market and reducing the penalties that come with moving up from the lowest rungs of the ladder.”

This could describe any number of subsidy programs that phase out as incomes rise, but in recent years, it has become a proxy on the right for Obamacare. The ACA does indeed create steep marginal tax increases for beneficiaries who cross into higher income brackets, and that part of the design likely does create a modest disincentive against climbing from, say, just under 200 percent of the federal poverty level, to just over it. But Bush isn’t proposing to smooth or flatten the ACA’s subsidy formula. He wants to get rid of laws that “restrict[] the labor market” and the biggest effect ACA has on the labor market is that it weakens “job lock” and thus frees people to leave jobs they don’t like, or retire early, or voluntarily work part time and so on. This is straightforwardly a consequence of the fact that the ACA increases its beneficiaries' incomes, and getting rid of the “problem” thus requires getting rid of or substantially reducing the benefit.

Not all of the conservative themes in Bush’s speech were so deeply submerged in avuncular language. When Bush declared “we have seen them [the Obama administration] waive the rules that helped so many people escape welfare,” he was alluding to one of the most roundly debunked and divisive attacks of the 2012 campaign.

In July of that year, the Obama administration responded favorably to multiple state requests, including from Republican governors in Utah and Nevada, to allow states with proven track records of moving people from welfare to work to experiment with new incentive systems outside the explicit scope of the 1996 federal welfare reform law.

Rather than applauding Obama for loosening the government’s grip on the states, and providing them more flexibility than prescribed under federal law—or criticizing him narrowly for exceeding his authority, even in the service of conservative ends—Republicans accused him of gutting the reforms in order to provide shiftless poor people with unconditional welfare.

Bush may not be willing to pander as nakedly as Mitt Romney, but he is prepared to pick up where Romney left off.

And this is where the contradictions in Bush’s speech begin to spill over. Bush claims to want to “give Washington less and give state and local governments more [power].” But in a literal sense, his attack on welfare flexibility rules connotes precisely the opposite. And his most compelling argument that government intervention can stifle economic dynamism—“The taxicab companies fight against web-enabled car services. The restaurants fight against the food trucks. The brick-and-mortar retailers fight against the Internet companies”—implicitly attacks the very state and local power structures he claims to prefer.

In a tossed off remark to Fournier, Bush included the health care law in a list of challenges to innovation—“the encumbering that is making it harder for people to have start-ups.”

As it happens, an obscure startup called Uber—a GOP’s favorite, which Bush namechecked approvingly in his speech—loves Obamacare, and regards collusion between local governments and taxi commissions as its greatest impediment.

New York's Jonathan Chait diagnosed this inconsistency as “an almost axiomatic belief on the right that bad government equals big government, and big government equals centralized government.”

“It is not,” Chait argues, “that American conservatives consistently favor the expansion of state and local government, but merely that they see it as inherently superior to the federal version…. Thus, conservatives have directed their energies primarily against Washington. The association is so deeply rooted that even figures who are staring directly at a different kind of problem—at Big Small Government—simply cannot see it.”

Of all the myriad iniquities that gave rise to civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, Rand Paul looked at the breakdown there and attributed it almost entirely to federal policies that have militarized local police. His diagnosis was incredibly single-minded and reductive, but at least it touched on a genuine problem. Bush by contrast sees obstacles to economic innovation and attributes them to Obamacare, even when Obamacare is actually reducing them.

Jonathan Martin of the Times watched Bush these past 24 hours and saw a “determination to run a general [election] all the way thru.” I think he’ll be very at home in the primary.