Jeb Bush ought to be running away with the Republican nomination. He isn’t, and his persona as a national candidate looks increasingly — how shall I put this? —Romneyesque.
Bush is supposed to be the safe, establishment-approved choice, which is where the Republican Party usually turns. He and his allied super PAC have raised a phenomenal $114 million thus far. The hot mess that is Donald Trump ought to be sending GOP primary voters toward Bush’s column in droves. But the scion-in-waiting hasn’t yet consolidated the establishment’s support.
Instead, Bush made news for announcing an economic strategy that sounded straight from the Mitt Romney playbook. He told the New Hampshire Union Leader that “people need to work longer hours and, through their productivity, gain more income for their families.”
Simple as that, beleaguered American middle-class proles. You’re slacking.
The echo of Romney’s infamous “47%” remark was unmistakable. Bush seemed to blame those struggling in these unsettled economic times for their own predicament. Coming from a man who was born into great wealth and privilege, it was tone-deaf to say the least.
Politically, Bush’s pronouncement was the equivalent of a hanging curve ball over the fat part of the plate. Hillary Clinton couldn’t have missed it if she tried.
“Well, he must not have met very many American workers,” the likely Democratic nominee said Monday in a speech outlining her economic policy. “Let him tell that to the nurse who stands on her feet all day, or the teacher who is in that classroom, or the trucker who drives all night. Let him tell that to the fast-food workers marching in the streets for better pay. They don’t need a lecture. They need a raise.”
Bush’s supporters claimed that what the candidate meant to say had to do with the millions of men and women who would like to have full-time jobs but are settling for part-time work — and also the millions who have dropped out of the workforce altogether. But why, then, didn’t he speak of the need to create better jobs for the underemployed? Why did he approach the problem from the opposite angle by blaming the workers for their plight?
There are two possible explanations. One is that Bush, like his father and brother, clearly has a troubled relationship with proper syntax. He may never match George Bush the Younger’s classic mangling of the language — he once said, “You got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda” — but Jeb appears to have the potential, at least, to match George Bush the Elder for linguistic pratfalls.
When he was reacting to Trump’s anti-Mexican screeds, Bush tried to warn that the Republican Party could not succeed by appearing to be angry and negative all the time rather than sunny and positive. But he couldn’t find some elusive synonym for anger and instead went “grr,” thus creating one of the campaign’s most entertaining sound bites to date.
So maybe the “work longer hours” line was simply the kind of clumsy misstatement that Bush’s aides will spend a lot of time and effort cleaning up in the coming months. But maybe — and this is the other explanation for the remarks — it’s what he really believes.
If any Republican is going to win the White House, I’m confident it won’t be by scolding the middle class for its shortcomings. It is clear that Americans have no problem electing wealthy candidates. But in the 2012 campaign, Romney inadvertently helped define himself, accurately or not, as a rich man who held the less fortunate in contempt. People don’t like that so much.
With Trump (speaking of contemptuous rich men) now drawing the support of up to 13% of Republicans in recent polls, you would think the saner factions of the party would be coalescing around an alternative. But they’re still shopping. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who formally entered the race Monday, is about to have his day in the sun. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is still polling well. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Texas governor Rick Perry and political neophyte Carly Fiorina all have significant establishment support.
All this suggests to me that the GOP mainstream, determined to avoid Romney Redux, hasn’t made up its mind yet about Bush. As his brother once said, “Fool me once, shame on, shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again!”
Eugene Robinson is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.