In his run for the GOP nomination in 2000, George W. Bush successfully united establishment Republicans and social conservatives. As a Chamber-friendly evangelical who could speak honestly about how Jesus Christ “changed my heart,” Bush created an unbeatable coalition that energized the socially conservative base of the party while satisfying its donor class.
Now his brother Jeb is attempting to do the same thing within a much more fractured party. The younger Bush’s address to the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority conference Friday shows how the former Florida governor is attempting to meld these critical wings of the GOP.
“Today’s not going to be a political speech,” Bush began in the ballroom of the Omni Shoreham hotel in Washington. “I thought I would talk a little more about my journey of faith.” Bush spoke about traveling to Mexico at the age of 17, meeting and falling in love with his wife, and converting to her Catholicism after his failed 1994 gubernatorial bid.
Despite the initial promise, Bush soon shifted to politics. He referred to a question political leaders are often asked, about whether their decisions in government will be guided by their faith. “I know typically the answer that they want to hear is ‘No, never, of course not. Gosh, I would never do that,’” Bush said. “The endpoint is a certain kind of politician that we’ve all heard before. The guy whose moral convictions are so private, so deeply personal, that he refuses even to impose them on himself.”
The crowd laughed. “Well, that’s not me,” said Bush.
So who is Jeb Bush? He sounds a little like a compassionate conservative for the post-Tea Party era. There are hints of the “head-banging conservative” from his 1994 campaign. “We could shut down government if we all acted on our sense of consciousness about helping others. If we restore that front-and-center as the guiding principle of what it is to be a successful person…the demands on government would subside.”
And there’s his “compassionate” side, too. “I do believe, I honestly believe that as a conservative that believes in limited government, we need to put the most vulnerable in our society first, in the front of the line. They’re of as much value as everyone else, and others need to take a step back,” Bush said.
How does this translate into a political campaign, or even a presidency? Bush didn’t elaborate. Instead, he touted his record as governor of Florida. “We took special care for the most vulnerable in our society,” he said, noting both his support for tougher regulations on abortion clinics and his advocacy on behalf of Terri Schiavo.
“In Florida, as the most conservative reform-minded governor in modern times, where I cut taxes, I shrunk the government, and we created an environment of lots of high sustained economic growth,” he said. “We did all of these conservative things, but we also put the most vulnerable in society in the front of the line, guided by my faith.”