Jeb Bush is plenty conservative. He is, after all, the governor who intervened in the Schiavo family’s personal tragedy at the behest of the “religious” far right, who did his best to hand Florida’s already terrible public education system over to private profiteers, while doing the bidding of the Chamber of Commerce crowd. As far as national politics goes, Bush supported his brother’s invasion of Iraq and has been a critic of President Obama’s policies that rescued the economy from his brother’s policies.
Yet the loudest conservative criticism directed at Bush is that he’s not far right enough.
Other than George W. Bush, the Bush family has always had something of a struggle against the party’s right wing. George H.W. Bush was defeated from the right by Reagan in the 1980 election, only to become his running mate, then faced a right wing insurgency in 1992 from Pat Buchanan.
Even George W., after years of conservatives rubber stamping his policies, faced a bit of a pushback from the right on issues like immigration. And now, in the Obama era, the party has swung to such an extreme right-wing position that the only way to win the nomination is to throw any hint of moderation or bipartisanship on a bonfire, like both Mitt Romney and John McCain were forced to do.
Jeb Bush isn’t a moderate, not by a long stretch, and while he has resisted a strong pull to the right thus far, there are signs that his disappointing showing so far in the so-called invisible primary may put an end to that.
The Overton Window is the idea that fringe ideas can eventually become mainstreamed, shifting the window of what is acceptable. The problem for the conservative movement is that what is mainstream within the ideology is not quite in line with the presidential electorate. The no-brainer opposition to abortion rights, same-sex marriage, climate change, fiscal regulation and voting access that gets a House member easily re-elected in Idaho is not something that a presidential candidate can get away with.
But the electorate that chooses the Republican nominee requires John McCain to ditch the immigration legislation he cosponsored with Ted Kennedy, or makes Mitt Romney throw away his support for abortion rights in Massachusetts in exchange for the boast that he is a “severe” conservative.
The same features of the midterm electorate that are a boon for the right –older, whiter, more male – are AWOL in the general election.
While his positions are bad, Jeb Bush isn’t a dumb man, and he knows this. The one thing the Rove wing of the party has been right about is the idea that being reflexively nativist towards Latino Americans is a loser prospect for a national party. But while Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley, and others can campaign on the idea of reforming our system, Jeb Bush is called an apologist for merely conceding that Latinos are worthy of the American dream.
If he holds on and overcomes likely losses in Iowa and South Carolina, he could be a formidable candidate. But if he follows the pander pattern we saw with Romney and McCain in order to secure the nomination, the Overton Window may have already claimed another failed Republican presidential candidate.