Seeing some oohing and aahing online this afternoon among political media that Jeb didn’t pander to CPAC’s very conservative crowd on Common Core or immigration (“he stuck to his guns!”), but what would he have gained by doing that? Remember, for all the hype in 2012 that Romney was shifting to the center to run as a technocrat instead of as the culture warrior he ran as in 2008, he was still a fairly doctrinaire righty on most issues, the notable exception of RomneyCare aside. That’s what the “severely conservative” nonsense was all about in his CPAC speech three years ago. That’s also why he was a hard-ass about “self-deportation” as a solution to illegal immigration, a position that he alone seemed to hold among the amnesty-fan donor class from which he hails. (I’m convinced that self-deportation is to Romney 2012 what traditional marriage was to Obama 2008, although we’ll never know for sure.) Romney worried that, with the tea party in ascendance during Obama’s first term, he could win the GOP nomination but be crippled by recalcitrant conservatives who refused to vote for him in the general election. That’s why he insisted on pandering to them, I think — partly because he thought he could grab some righty votes here and there in the primaries as the most obviously electable candidate in the field and partly just to stay on conservatives’ good side so that they’d turn out for him.
Jeb’s coming from a different place. For one thing, there are formidable candidates in the field in Scott Walker and Marco Rubio who are arguably as electable as Bush is and with whom he’ll have to compete for dollars among the country-club set. He doesn’t (yet) have a stranglehold on the business class like Romney did. Bush’s “I won’t pander” shtick has also generated an early animosity among righties that wasn’t quite there for the eager-to-please Romney, who at least seemed like he wanted conservatives to like him. Bush’s aloofness is more Huntsman-esque. And the centrists of the donor class who are bankrolling him love it, of course. They’re sick to death of tea partiers whining about the establishment and they finally have a candidate who’s unapologetic about sharing their views. Furthermore, it was establishmentarians even more than tea partiers who thrived in the 2014 midterms. They have the momentum within the GOP right now, not righties, so why should they tolerate their champion pandering to right-wingers like they did with Mitt?
So here’s Jeb, knowing all of that and having already all but written off conservative votes, wondering what to do with his Q&A at CPAC today. Should he reverse course and start pandering to righties? If he did, we’d laugh at him while his centrist business-minded base would recoil in horror. Or should he stick to his guns, earning a little grudging respect from conservatives that he came onto their turf and refused to pander while impressing establishmentarians that he means what he says about running as a loud-and-proud centrist? It’s a no-brainer. In fact, for all the jokes today about this being Jeb’s moment to show he too is “severely conservative,” Bush was actually trying to do the opposite of what Romney was doing with that speech. Mitt gave that speech because he wanted to prove to CPAC’s audience of grassroots conservatives that he was one of them. Jeb gave today’s Q&A to prove to people who aren’t at CPAC that he’s one of them and not afraid to broadcast that fact at ground zero of the conservative movement. How that ends for him in November 2016 if he’s the nominee, I don’t know. Presumably he thinks it doesn’t matter how much righties dislike him since they’ll inevitably dislike Hillary more. He’s not wrong.
Here he is endorsing a path to legalization for illegals — a position held by every Republican candidate in the field, I hasten to remind you — followed by Laura Ingraham unloading on him in a speech at CPAC earlier this morning. Jeb also said today that he supports traditional marriage. Mark that down for easy reference for the inevitable “he’s evolved” news circa spring 2018. Exit quotation from Ingraham: “The idea that we should conduct any kind of coronation … because 50 rich families decide who will best decide their interests? No way, Jose.”