By MICHAEL GERSON
WASHINGTON — Stealthily demonstrating one of Jeb Bush’s more controversial policy views — the need for Common Core history standards — an “anonymous ally” is quoted in The New York Times as saying that “the culture of the Bush operation will now be a Pickett’s Charge engagement with his main opponents.”
Republican politicians have generally preferred Teddy Roosevelt’s San Juan Hill model of political engagement — a guaranteed outcome with maximum press coverage. But it will be interesting to see Bush strategist Mike Murphy roll out his Gallipoli-inspired social media campaign.
Meaningless historical errors by unnamed sources aside, the starting gun of the 2016 campaign has been fired, and three Republicans are clearly in the first tier of plausibility — Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio. The conventional wisdom about these candidates is interesting for being mostly wrong.
Jeb’s role: The Establishment Moderate. Reporters who have covered Bush for decades find this risible. If his record as governor shows anything, it is a visceral distrust of government bureaucracy, expressed through the aggressive privatization of public functions and the elimination of thousands of state government jobs. Bush cut taxes and championed gun rights and school vouchers. He was, in his own self-assessment, “probably the most pro-life governor in modern times.”
Members of team Bush see opportunity in this gap between impression and reality. Familiarity, they think, will reduce contempt among conservatives. Bush is banking on memory. Bush’s advisers think that Walker, who has sometimes trimmed to win in a progressive state, is banking on forgetfulness.
It is not quite that simple. The best ideological description of Bush comes via National Review’s Rich Lowry, who calls him a “pre-Obama conservative.” Bush was essentially out of politics during the traumatic, formative period of modern conservatism — the election and re-election of a faculty-lounge liberal who set out to transform America. Bush didn’t fight in these ideological trenches and doesn’t share the scars from conservatism’s real Pickett’s Charge (Ted Cruz’s government shutdown).
What a few find disqualifying might be refreshing to the broader electorate. When George W. Bush ran and won in 2000, he distanced himself, not only from Clinton era, but from the scorched-earth GOP of Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay and crew. “After all of the shouting and all of the scandal,” George W. Bush said in his Philadelphia convention speech. “After all of the bitterness and broken faith, we can begin again.” The younger Bush has a chance to distance himself from the whole mess in Washington during the Obama era, not just the Democratic portion of it.
The role ascribed to Walker by conventional wisdom is quite different: The Top Tier’s Tea Party Favorite. In fights against public-sector unions, he has earned a serious reputation. Grover Norquist recounts: “when you meet him, it’s like seeing somebody who sits on a throne on the skulls of his enemies.”
This is what passes as a compliment in some conservative circles. But this impression disguises a boldly moderate maneuver. Of all the Republican candidates, Walker has been most forthright in his intention to downplay cultural issues in favor of economic ones. When pressed on gay marriage last year, he said, “When I talk about things, I talk about the economic and fiscal crisis in our state and in our country. That’s what people want to resonate about.” And again: “I don’t talk about [gay marriage] at all. I don’t talk about anything but fiscal and economic issues in the state.” On the abortion issue, he has said, “I don’t obsess with it.”
It is true that the GOP will need a changed tone and approach when it comes to social issues. And the portion of the tea party that leans libertarian will have no objection to Walker’s instinct for silence.
But this comes closest to the argument made by Gov. Mitch Daniels during the last presidential cycle that Republicans should accept a “truce” on social issues while emphasizing economic ones. Religious conservatives — who have considerable overlap with the tea party and disproportionate influence in Iowa — were not pleased then, and may not be now.
None of this myth-busting does much to clarify the Republican race. When candidates refuse to play their assigned roles, it adds uncertainty and interest. My only conclusion: This contest is unlikely to move along expected ideological grooves.
Which brings us to the conventional wisdom about Rubio: The Riser With Limitless Potential. That is, well, pretty much accurate.