Skip to main content

Can Jeb Bush sway the GOP on taxes, debt?

By Jeff Smith, Special to CNN
updated 3:46 PM EST, Tue December 11, 2012
Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, is a potential GOP candidate for the 2016 presidential election.
Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, is a potential GOP candidate for the 2016 presidential election.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jeff Smith: No American family embodies Republicanism more than the Bushes
  • Smith: Jeb Bush, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, may be bucking the trend
  • He says Jeb Bush advocates for fiscal responsibility and standing up to Grover Norquist
  • Smith: If GOP can return to its more centrist roots, then it has a chance to win more voters

Editor's note: Jeff Smith, who represented Missouri's 4th Senate District from 2006-09, is a professor in the urban policy graduate program at The New School. He is on Twitter: @jeffsmithMO.

(CNN) -- No American family embodies mainstream Republicanism more than the Bushes, noted a New York Times article this year.

For three generations, Bush men have occupied towering positions in the party pantheon, and the party's demographic and ideological shifts can be traced through the branches of the Bush family tree: from Prescott, the blue-blooded Eisenhower Republican, and George H.W. Bush, the transitional figure who tried and failed to emulate the approach of the New Right, to George W. Bush, who embodied the new breed of tax-cutting, evangelical conservatism. Indeed, the Bushes' metamorphosis from genial centrism to deep-fried conservatism has both anticipated and reflected the party's trajectory.

But now, Jeb Bush, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, seems to be bucking the trend. He is seeking to return the party to its ideological moorings -- toward the centrism of his grandfather. Even before the GOP's ignominious defeat in November, Jeb was offering tough love to his party, suggesting that Republicans stand up to Grover Norquist and craft a bipartisan compromise to reduce the deficit significantly. But will Republicans listen? There are many reasons to believe they won't.

Jeff Smith
Jeff Smith

Prescott was a Manhattan investment banker who called himself a "moderate progressive." In the 1952 primary between conservative presidential candidate Sen. Robert Taft and moderate Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Prescott chose Eisenhower -- and became the president's favorite golf partner. Prescott rode Eisenhower's coattails into the Senate, where he focused on urban renewal, spearheading the 1954 Housing Act. An early proponent of the line-item veto, he received national recognition as an advocate of fiscal responsibility.

Prescott's son George H.W. left for West Texas in 1948 when Texas was still a one-party state. But change was afoot in the South, and by the time H.W. ran for U.S. Senate in 1964, he encountered a flourishing Texas Republican Party that had recently elected its first U.S. senator by attracting hordes of conservative Democrats. But the new rank-and-file Republicans were nothing like the Connecticut Republicans he knew -- or even like those in the Houston suburbs. Biographer Richard Ben Cramer imagined H.W.'s vexation at this new breed of Texas Republican:

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



"These ... these nuts! They were coming out of the woodwork! They talked about blowing up the U.N., about armed revolt against the income tax. ...The nuts hated him. They could smell Yale on him."

Recognizing that his 1964 primary campaign would need to be more Goldwater than Rockefeller, he ignored the social problems Prescott had addressed. "Only unbridled free enterprise can cure unemployment," H.W. asserted, contending that government bore no responsibility for alleviating poverty. Though he lost, he began the transition to Sunbelt conservatism that would make him (barely) acceptable to Ronald Reagan as a running mate. But he never fully evolved: He famously reneged on his "no new taxes" pledge. His son George W. would complete the transition.

George W.'s first major legislative accomplishment as president was the enactment of a massive $1.6 trillion tax cut. He rode roughshod over the green-eyeshade types to pass a massive tax cut. When it produced runaway deficits, he accepted Dick Cheney's argument: "Reagan taught us that deficits don't matter."

In adopting Sun Belt conservatism -- sometimes clumsily -- George H.W. and George W. anticipated the Republican Party's ideological shift. Hence, in evaluating Jeb's prescriptions for fiscal responsibility, today's Republicans should recall the Bushes' past political palm reading.

Jeb Bush in 2016?

Politics is about addition, not subtraction. Every year, as Republicans maintain the electoral coalition that responds to their platform, they face an inevitable subtraction from their base. That's because unyielding stances on taxes and deficits practically guarantee that young voters will continue opposing them, and the (older and whiter) constituencies who favor them shrink as a percentage of the electorate. Republicans who believe they can continue to win with their current coalition are like rats who believe they can outrun a treadmill.

As the nation approaches $16 trillion of debt and grapples with the baby boomer retirement, young voters will grasp that every dollar spent on entitlement programs is a dollar paid by already-strapped young workers. That may well push young voters to support the party with the most credible deficit-reduction plan.

According to 2012 exit polls, 60% of young voters (aged 18-29) supported President Barack Obama. Young voters also made up a slightly larger share of the electorate than they had in 2008. This is a huge problem for Republicans for three reasons. One, people tend to vote with higher frequencies once they hit their 30s. Two, generational cohorts tend to stick with the party they supported in their formative years. And most obviously, young voters are more likely to be around to vote in the future.

If it were just about math, Jeb could convince the party to adopt what polling shows are clearly winning positions. But as the work of scholars Gary Miller and Norman Schofield suggests, it's not a linear equation: It's about momentum and intensity within the Republican coalition.

That's because the newest entrants to a party's electoral coalition are usually its most robust -- and the hardest to roll in intraparty skirmishes. For Republicans, it is the mostly white and older tea partiers, who block electorally beneficial positions on taxes. The next newest entrants to the coalition are Christian conservatives, many of whom also strongly oppose tax increases.

Fiscally conservative and socially progressive Rockefeller types are the oldest group, but they've been leaving the Republican Party for decades. Whereas many of them supported Republican congressional candidates in the 1970s, far less did by the 2000s. So while this group is the easiest to persuade of the need for adjustments (indeed, many already share Jeb's views), they hold the least sway in the party.

What does all this mean? American parties since the Civil War have periodically shed the coalition elements that are most distant from their activist base. While Jeb's prescriptions are in the party's long-term interest, they will be difficult to execute, given the strength of the party's coalition members.

Can Jeb sway a resistant party base? It's quite possible: His family's odyssey has reflected the party's shifts for 50 years, and he's uniquely positioned to convince his peers. If Republicans listen, it will constitute a return to their roots -- and a reckoning with demographic reality.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeff Smith.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT