If Jeb Bush decides to run for president, he will have several advantages: access to deep-pocketed donors; a national network of political operatives who helped his brother George get elected twice; and a popularity among the Morning Joe media elite set who see him as a possible savior of the Republican Party.
But he also will face a deep skepticism among the conservative grass roots and the Tea Partiers who fuel the Republican primary process.
“I don’t know him real well, but from what I have read he is not someone I could support,” said Scott Hofstra, a Tea Party leader active in Kentucky. He cited Bush’s support for the Common Core, an Obama administration plan to nationalize educational standards, which Hofstra said “takes the teachers out of education and treats every child the same.”
“The Tea Party is very much a constitutionally based group, and that is not something we could support,” he added.
It was a feeling echoed by nearly a dozen grassroots leaders around the country interviewed Monday, as Bush basked in the glow of rekindled interest in his political prospects after he spoke at an event in Texas over the weekend to honor the 25th anniversary of father’s presidency.
The speech did little to endear him to conservatives. Bush defended his position on Common Core, saying, “I just don’t feel compelled to run for cover when I think this is the right thing to do for our country”; criticized Republicans for the tenor of the primary campaigns in years past; and, most controversially, appeared to defend undocumented immigrants. “Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony; it’s an act of love,” he said.
Several of the conservative leaders interviewed by The Daily Beast said they saw those comments as evidence that Bush is not a true conservative.
“I like the gentleman, but I think his comments on immigration are a little screwy,” said Mark Skoda, a Memphis-based talk radio host and the co-founder of the National Tea Party Federation. “It is this notion that the rule of law no longer applies because it is somehow not compassionate. We don’t need ‘compassionate conservatism.’ Conservatism is compassionate because it is about freedom and restoring individual liberty.”
That phrase, of course, comes from George W. Bush’s first presidential run, and it speaks to a unique problem Jeb Bush would face if he runs. While grassroots conservatives are used to swallowing hard and accepting nominees distasteful to them—as they did with Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008—both Bush’s brother and father are pariahs to many in the conservative movement. The elder Bush violated his own “No New Taxes” pledge in 1990, which led conservatives to abandon him in his 1992 re-election bid. And much of the early Tea Party passion was a reaction to the presidency of George W. Bush, particularly his own education agenda, the No Child Left Behind Policy and the Medicare Prescription Drug benefit, both of which increased the deficit, and his bailout of the banks just as the economy was cratering in late 2008.
“He was very popular as governor of Florida, but I think his major issue as far as running for president is his last name. If he had any other last name I think you would see conservatives pushing him to run,” said Everett Wilkinson, the chairman of the National Liberty Foundation. “Americans are not happy with the direction of the country, and when you have two presidents with the same last name, that causes most people to have a second thought.”
Jeb Bush also needs to curb his tendency to lecture Republicans about what ails their party if he hopes to have a future on the campaign trail, said Craig Robinson, who runs a prominent Iowa GOP blog.
“I understand the argument, but that is a tough sale when you are running for president,” Robinson said. “‘You might not like my education proposals and believe that the federal government should have nothing to do with education, but, well, here it is anyway.’ It is not a message that is going to get Republican primary voters very excited.”
Several of the top conservative media personalities have fueled the opposition to a Bush restoration. “He’s pro-amnesty, pro-Common Core, pro-Big Business & he wants to be president,” Michelle Malkin tweeted on Monday. On NewsMax TV, former Rep. Allen West called Bush an “elitist” and said his immigration comments were “disrespectful to the American people.” And national radio talk show host Mark Levin has called the prospect of another Bush presidency “extremely unhealthy for the Republic.”
If Bush does run, however, he could ignore the outcry from the conservative wing of the party. That space is likely to be crowded anyway with a number of candidates who came directly out of the Tea Party, including Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Bush, for his part, could be the only candidate from the establishment wing, especially if New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie decides that his bridge scandal is more than a presidential run could bear.
“It is not like there is one conservative for all of them to rally around,” said Dave Carney, a political consultant who helped orchestrate Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential run but is staying out of the race this time around. Bush, Carney said, could expand the pool of primary voters beyond the die-hard conservatives. And voters would learn quickly that the former Florida governor is no carbon copy of his father and brother.
“Anybody who thinks they are the same people with the same record is crazy,” Carney said. “In Florida he had some pretty fantastic reforms that he was able to accomplish, especially around education. He is different from his brother, and I think that would become pretty apparent.”
But Carney added: “It is not a free walk. He has to be aggressive on how he addresses these things.”
Robinson, the Iowa blogger, suggested that Bush would need to grab a few deeply conservative issues to push, which could prove difficult.
“Even with Romney and McCain, there was something as a conservative that you could grab on to,” he said, citing McCain’s hawkish foreign policy and Romney’s tough talk on immigration. Bush “is going to be running in a primary where everybody is going to be to the right of him, and you can see the other candidates just beating up on him in debates all the time.”
Sal Russo, co-founder of the Tea Party Express, sounded a more hopeful note than his fellow Tea Partiers, suggesting that at the very least, Bush could expect a fair hearing from many in the movement.
“I think a lot of the candidates have an opportunity to make their case,” Russo said. “And if there are things they have said in the past that haven’t warmed people’s hearts, well, even they have a chance for redemption.”