Jeb Bush was winding through remarks to the U.S.’s National Automobile Dealers Association a few days ago when he struck what figures to be the central but little-appreciated tenet of his likely presidential campaign.
What, he was asked, is the most important message for Republicans to offer voters?
“Hope,” he replied succinctly. “I mean, an optimistic message grounded in the greatness of our country…an optimistic message, not a reactionary message.”
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In talking privately to his supporters and advisers, and in his own limited public remarks so far, Mr. Bush has made it clear that he wants his campaign to be distinguished by a positive and optimistic tone, which he thinks will contrast favorably with most of political discourse in recent years and with most of Washington debate these days.
[. . .]
For conservatives to win, the Bush camp believes, they have to widen the GOP’s circle, and that can only happen if they are playing offense with a positive message rather than playing defense.
Implicit in this quest is an acknowledgment that Republicans have come to be defined more by what they are against than what they are for. Against Obamacare. Against raising the minimum wage. Against gay marriage. Against a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Now, most recently, against making community-college education free to most comers.
That perception has done sustained damage to the Republican brand name. One consistent characteristic of the 2008 and 2012 campaigns was that Barack Obama was viewed more positively by voters across the board than were either John McCain or Mitt Romney . The overall trend has held even in the lowest stretches of Mr. Obama’s presidency. In The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, there hasn’t been a sustained period in which Americans held a net positive view of the Republican Party in a decade.
Of course, as we know, Barack Obama also talked about hope. But unlike Jeb Bush, Barack Obama didn’t serve two terms as governor of a large state and actually have substantive accomplishments to complement a positive message. Bush has wisely figured out that by adopting the president’s positive message, while at the same time presenting an actual record of leadership to voters, he will best position himself to win the support of establishment Republicans who are hungry for a general election win, and who may well be inclined to give Bush the financial and personnel support he needs to win the nomination and go on to a fall campaign. By no means has Bush secured the Republican nomination, let alone made himself into an overwhelming favorite for the presidency. But he is demonstrating that of all of the other Republican presidential candidates, he has the best background, strategy and chance to win the general election.
Surely, that has to count for something. If Republican voters are smart, it will.