Skip to main content

Can Jeb Bush sway the GOP on taxes, debt?

By Jeff Smith, Special to CNN
December 11, 2012 -- Updated 2046 GMT (0446 HKT)
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
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT