Daily Comment DAILY COMMENT | The Real Value of Jeb’s “Unfortunate Comments”

Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 1.07.29 PMNICHOLAS LEMANN OCTOBER 7, 2015

Politico has posted a fifty-one-second compilation video of what it calls “unfortunate comments” by Jeb Bush—“stuff happens,” “free stuff,” “anchor babies,” “I’m not sure we need to spend half a billion dollars for women’s-health issues,” and so on. The implication is that it’s a mystery why a sixty-two-year-old third-generation politician, the grandson of a senator and the son and brother of Presidents (his own son George P. Bush, an office-holder in Texas, is fourth-generation), would be capable of making stupid mistakes in a campaign that he has to have been thinking about for decades.

All of the unfortunate comments are presumably impolitic, but all of them also seem to reveal what Bush really thinks: mass shootings ought not give rise to gun-control legislation, government payments engender dependency, illegal immigrants have babies so that they can stay in the United States, women’s-health issues (especially birth control!) should not be government’s responsibility. Bush, as an insider, is supposed to know better than to be this candid, especially when he is confronted with the difficult  task of persuading a very conservative Republican primary electorate to trust him, while in full view, via the press, of the much more liberal general electorate. Candor is for people like Donald Trump.

Jeb Bush seems to be, to descend into New Age lingo, a left-brain politician: rational to a fault. George W. Bush was right-brain: instinctive. Left-brain politicians think about policy. Right-brain politicians think about politics, and about how to connect with people. George W.’s description of himself, in the 2000 campaign, as a “compassionate conservative” was brilliantly vague—liberals heard it as “I’m not all that conservative,” and conservatives heard it as “I’m deeply religious.” It was about him as a person, not a program. Jeb’s slogan, “Right to rise,” is harder-edged, more specific in its implications, less personal, and easier to attack.

Jeb Bush has said that he is the most ideologically conservative member of his family, and he’s also known for being fascinated by the details of government. His brother preferred to have issues boiled down into very short memos. He prided himself on decisiveness, not knowledge or intellectual consistency.

It may not be so easy for liberals in 2015 to understand why many conservatives regard George W. as a sellout. His sins, in conservatives’ view, included getting the federal government much more involved with local public schools through No Child Left Behind, creating a very expensive new entitlement program in the prescription-drug benefit for senior citizens, and going to war for reasons beyond an immediate need to protect the homeland.

Jeb, compared to his brother, seems much more sincerely devoted to the great theoretical cause of American conservatism, limited government. You can sense his impulse to turn each news event to which he must respond into a teachable moment about how government isn’t the solution to every problem. No less than liberals, conservatives feel themselves to be perpetual underdogs, because the other side’s main selling point, the provision of government benefits to people, is far more immediately appealing. Conservatives see themselves as having the challenge of arguing that you really shouldn’t want the goodies the Democrats are offering you. That’s the place where Bush’s unfortunate comment about taking care of you with free stuff seems to come from.

For a very long time, Presidential politics have been stuck in a dynamic in which Republicans attack “government” without getting too specific about which of the government’s activities they have in mind, and Democrats defend popular programs but not the over-all idea of the welfare state. Bill Clinton’s typically centrist attempt to address the larger issue was to say, in his second inaugural address, that government was not the problem but neither was it the solution. Who can argue with that?

Anyone who has found this situation frustrating ought to be happy with the way this campaign season is going. The legacy of the financial crisis and the rise of Bernie Sanders have pushed Hillary Clinton to be more open about offering government as a corrective to the excesses of the market than either Bill Clinton or Barack Obama has generally been. And Jeb Bush is one of several Republican candidates—one of whom isn’t Trump—to make specific, non-consensus proposals.

It seems possible that, in a year, we might have two candidates who openly disagree, both about the proper role of government in theory and about many specific programs in practice. That would be wonderful, because voters would have an unusually clear sense of the choice they are making. Let’s keep those unfortunate comments coming.