Monday, March 18, 2013

What Jeb Bush can learn from Sarah Palin

After Jeb Bush left the CPAC stage, the narrative was pretty much unanimous -- he gave the GOP some tough love with a measured, thoughtful plea for the party to open up.

Okay, maybe.

But here's something Jeb needs to understand -- people will only accept tough love from people they loveand to get into their heads you first have to get into their hearts.

There's no evidence that the base loves Jeb Bush (see multiple polls here); in fact if anything, they feel unloved, thanks to his frequent lashings. Thus, why would his message get through?

The bases of both parties -- Democrat and Republican -- are notoriously savage to divergent thought, and to get them to compromise is dirty business and politicians rarely live to tell the story.

Intraparty rebukes can only come from those are seen as squarely within the party. That's why Jon Huntsman flamed out -- he didn't bring conservative credibility with his rebuke. That's why the base is turning away from Karl Rove.

The plain and probable truth is this: no matter how much Jeb wants to deliver a "Sister Souljah moment" to the GOP base, it's probably just going to end up badly for the party and for him.

Why?

A) Since the messenger is wrong, the base will reject and resent the message and double down even harder, making it less likely to move when the right messenger comes along.

B) Each Jeb vs. Base skirmish runs the risk of being framed as The Tolerant, Inclusive Guy vs. The Intolerant, Exclusive Party.

Thus, the longer that battle goes on -- with neither Jeb nor the base likely to give in -- the more it will heighten damaging perceptions about the Republican party that already exist.

So, theoretically, a Jeb Bush "Sister Souljah" moment wouldn't work.

Practically, how do we know that?

Well, because Jeb's already had his share of Sister Souljah moments! He's been peppering the GOP base for years now and in multiple contexts.

It all started in 2008 when -- one month after Barack Obama's election -- Jeb accused the national party of "chest-pounding,", "screaming", and "yelling" on immigration.

In February 2009, he said the '08 results made it clear that "the chest-pounders lost" and said "you can't lead a mob," which sort of implied that Jeb thought the GOP base was a mob.

That same year, he told some college Republicans that "in politics, you never win when you say 'us and them' ," and warned that it needed to open up. That's not quite as inflammatory as implying the base is "a mob", as he did earlier, but once again, it was calling for reorientation.

Then there's the more recent history which has seen Jeb rebuking Arizona for its tough immigration law, dinging Mitt Romney for his tone on immigration, and claiming that there probably isn't room in today's party for Ronald Reagan.

To make things even more damaging, he made the Reagan comments in summer 2012 right when Romney was trying to convince America that the party welcomed everyone.

Similarly, he knocked the GOP field during the 2012 primary when he said, "I used to be conservative, and I watch these debates and I'm wondering, I don't think I've changed, but it's a little troubling sometimes when people are appealing to people's fears and emotion."

Upshot?

He's been doing the "Sister Souljah" thing in his uniquely passive/aggressive way for about four years now, and the base has pretty much ignored him.

The plain truth is that you need to be relevant to the base in order for the base to listen to you, and Jeb hasn't been relevant to the base for years.

Having said that, things aren't totally lost for Jeb. There's a way for him to win sudden credibility with the base and thereby open it up for receiving his tough love.

Jeb should have a "Reverse Sister Souljah Moment."

What's a Reverse Sister Souljah moment?

It's reconnecting with the base by slamming either the media or the mainstream GOP establishment. Simple as that. That's the last thing both institutions think he should do, but it's the first thing he has to do to get his larger message across to the base.

Jeb already has credibility with the media and GOP establishment, but he can't win a primary loaded with conservative strength unless he picks up cred with the base.

The simplest, most effective way of doing that is to take a pointed, sharp jab at the establishment and media. Then, with some goodwill and cred with the base, he can deliver his tough love for the party.

Now, the big question is whether he think it's beneath himself to play that game, but the answer would be -- surely, Jeb, there's at least something about the GOP establishment or mainstream media that you can hammer in public and not feel like you're "playing politics".

A perfect example is Sarah Palin's "Big Gulp" moment from CPAC, which electrified the base and, quite frankly, everyone else.

It was cheeky, it was snarky, it was devil-may-care, it was brilliant.

Imagine, for a second, Jeb Bush pulling out and lingering over a Big Gulp to start his speech on Saturday night. It would have immediately built a sense of solidarity and opened the audience to his message. Not just their ears, but their emotions, too.

Of course, Jeb might not want to fritter away his serious, seasoned aura with light-hearted barbs at liberals.

That's certainly Jeb's prerogative, but he's not going to connect with the base by being a stern agent of tough love.

Jeb Bush, in serious need of a "Reverse Sister Souljah Moment" to gain credibility with the base 

Tough love only works when you feel loved, and Jeb needs to show the base he actually, you know, loves them.

It's often said that Jeb will only run for president on his terms. That's admirable. But he won't win on his terms. Jon Huntsman would have loved to win as a moderate who was slightly contemptuous of the tea party wing of the party. But you can't do that -- not if you're running against stud conservatives to the right of you in 2016 and a fresher, more relevant Chris Christie up the middle.

None of this is to say that Jeb needs to become Sarah Palin, but he should, just for kicks, take a snarky shot at the media or establishment sometime and see how it goes. It could do what $10 million of ads would never do.

(Via, NRO, here's Palin's Big Gulp moment).