Like Us on Facebook LPA RSS Feed Tweet with Us on Twitter
Eye On Candidates
December 30, 2015

Choices for the Establishment/Conservative Voter, Part I: Jeb Bush

Conventional wisdom has it that there are four or five “lanes” in the Republican presidential nomination contest, perhaps as many as six, and that candidates usually try first to lock down a base of support in their natural lane before broadening their support by reaching out to voters occupying the remaining lanes.

Here is how Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake described the lanes in a February 2015 article:

Think of the Republican primary field as a series of lanes. In this race, there are four of them: Establishment, Tea Party, Social Conservative and Libertarian. The four lanes are not of equal size:  Establishment is the biggest followed by Tea Party, Social Conservative and then Libertarian. (I could be convinced that Libertarian is slightly larger than Social Conservative, but it's close.)

Another Post writer, Phillip Bump, adds a fifth lane, the “Very Conservative,” and many combine or conflate the “Establishment” category with a “Moderate” category, which isn’t entirely accurate but has some merit. It’s important to understand there is a great deal of overlap between many of these vaguely defined categories – a Social Conservative could also be a Tea Party voter, or lean toward an Establishment candidate. And many Libertarian, Tea Party, and Social Conservative voters undoubtedly find themselves in that Very Conservative voter category as well.

Which raises an interesting question – what might voters who fall into two or more lanes be looking for in a “fusion” candidate that exemplifies many of the most important traits in multiple lanes? This is the first of a series of posts looking at several potential combinations and which candidates might best suit them, based on the extensive profiles developed by the Leadership Project for America.

Definitions of each of the four or five or even six lanes (to the extent that Establishment and Moderate are separate lanes) vary, and the best one is probably “You’ll know it when you see it.” But consider a voter who is in both the Establishment and Very Conservative lanes: What would he or she look like, and which candidate(s) might be his or her favorite?

Such a voter would obviously have an overall conservative ideology (favoring limited government, wanting to see judges in the mold of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas appointed to the Supreme Court, supportive of a strong military and assertive foreign policy, as well as holding other common conservative views), but that ideological perspective would be tempered by other considerations such as a candidate’s electability, experience and accomplishments in public office, ability to unify different factions of the party, willingness to accept incremental advances in policy rather than expecting rapid and significant victories, and similar considerations.

The general consensus is that there are four major Republican contenders for the “Establishment” lane: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Today we’ll look at Bush as an option for the Establishment/Very Conservative fusion voter, and future posts will look at the remaining contenders for this combination lane, as well as other likely combinations.

Jeb Bush

Bush’s record as governor was one of the most conservative in recent memory as he embraced tax cuts, school vouchers, privatization, concealed-carry and “stand your ground” gun laws, and an end to affirmative action. His pro-life credentials are impeccable, particularly after his attempt to keep Terry Schiavo on life support. His policy proposals to date on taxes, energy, deregulation, health care, and other issues important to many conservatives have generally drawn praise from free-market, limited-government advocates.

There are two notable deviations for Bush that many conservatives may have trouble accepting, however, which can be seen in how his positions on education and immigration are written up in his Leadership Project for America profile:


Bush has been a fervent advocate for school choice, and in 1999, he introduced the first statewide school choice program in the country.113 Prior to that, he co-founded the state’s first charter school in a struggling Miami neighborhood. At an education summit in August 2015, he suggested that “total voucherization” should be considered, giving funds directly to parents and allowing them to spend it directly on their children’s education and save unspent money for college.114

Under Bush’s “A+” plan, students are required to meet certain standards in order to be promoted to the next grade, and teacher salaries are similarly tethered to those standards. The plan recently turned 15 years old, and Bush has been vocal in promoting its success in improving student outcomes.

Bush was an early supporter of the controversial Common Core program and appears to remain supportive. He sees Common Core, which has earned the ire of constitutional conservatives, tea party groups, homeschoolers, and teachers unions alike, as an extension of his “A+” plan. His nonprofit group, Foundation for Excellence in Education, has vigorously defended Common Core, though Bush’s rhetoric on it has shifted and so he no longer mentions it by name in public appearances and has suggested the problem isn’t Common Core but the Obama administration’s efforts to “hijack” it to intrude on state education.115


On immigration reform, Bush has in the past supported citizenship for those currently in the U.S. illegally, but more recently suggested in his 2013 book that only legal residency and not citizenship should be available.54  After publication of the book, however, he appears to have reverted to his original position supporting citizenship, saying the legal-residency-only position was offered as a politically viable option, not his preferred solution.55 He has said that those who were brought illegally to the country as children should be eligible for citizenship.56

He has also said he supports more border enforcement and giving states the power to help enforce immigration laws as well, such as using local law enforcement to enforce expiring visas57 and giving them the authority to determine which services immigrants are eligible for.58 He has proposed ending federal law enforcement funds to so-called “sanctuary cities” that refuse to cooperate with U.S. immigration laws.59

Bush has also said illegal immigration is “not a felony. It’s an act of love,”60 and suggested increased immigration (both legal and illegal) will ameliorate the Social Security system’s potential insolvency.61 He has rejected ending so-called “birthright citizenship,” which under the 14th Amendment grants citizenship to the children of illegal aliens born in the United States.62

There is little doubt that for a voter who fills both the Establishment and Very Conservative lanes, Bush has many attributes making him an attractive option. Given the pragmatic streak that often typifies Establishment voters, a further question should probably be asked: If Bush were elected president, would the issues on which he differs with many conservatives be so important for him that he might prevail against those voters’ wishes? If the answer is “no,” then it probably shouldn’t be too much of a concern whether he holds views on the issue that differ from most Very Conservative voters.

Both education and immigration are issues on which Bush has placed a great deal of emphasis, including his staunch advocacy of and leadership on school vouchers and frequent discussion of immigration on the campaign trail. So it seems reasonable to conclude he would continue to make these issues a priority as president.

On education, most conservatives would likely find much to like in Bush’s education agenda. On Common Core, his generally tepid support and occasional criticism of it, along with statements that states should not be forced to adopt the standards, suggests this might be something he de-emphasizes. There seems to be little reason to think conservative opponents have much to worry about from a President Jeb Bush on this issue – any focus by him on education is more likely to be in support of school vouchers and other favored conservative reforms, rather than Common Core.

Immigration is a different issue, however. A President Jeb Bush is almost certain to make immigration reform a high priority, and his general policy preferences in this area are almost certain to anger many conservatives, most particularly his past and possibly current support for granting citizenship to many illegal immigrants. That particular provision may be easily stripped out; Bush has indicated that as a compromise he would be willing to grant legal status but take citizenship off the table, which may satisfy some conservatives. Based on the current and likely future makeup of Congress, it seems reasonable to believe that a President Jeb Bush would stand a good chance of passing a comprehensive immigration reform plan that would be characterized by many as “amnesty.”

For the average Establishment/Very Conservative voter, then, it seems reasonable to believe that they would probably be very happy with what a President Jeb Bush would promote and have enacted in most areas, with the exception of immigration. The question for these voters then becomes: Is immigration a big enough issue for them to reject him, when so much else of Bush’s record and agenda is largely in alignment with their own views? The answer to that question probably holds the key to whether Bush still has a realistic chance of winning the Republican nomination.