Jeb Bush and the Power of Positive Thinking

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By Gerald F. Seib, WSJ

Optimism Expected to Be a Major Part of Any Presidential Campaign

New BushJeb 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.”

If a Jeb Bush presidential campaign is launched—and it’s now virtually certain one soon will be—that idea will be a central part of its mission statement.

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.

l.wsjThat theme also is likely to figure prominently in a speech Mr. Bush will make Wednesday to the Detroit Economic Club, in which he will talk about ways Americans can move up the economic ladder.

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.

Today’s dour dynamic seems well removed from the days of Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp, the purveyors of sunny Republicanism in the 1980s and 1990s. Mr. Bush appears to want to revive that spirit.

To get a sense of how he proposes to do so, it’s worth listening to his words in early December, when he appeared at The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council, a meeting of more than 100 top business executives. It now is clear that Mr. Bush was at the time both preparing to launch his presidential voyage and trying out themes for it.

“Republicans need to show they’re not just against things, that they’re for a bunch of things,” he said then. “Not just to repeal Obamacare, but to replace it with something that fits the 21st-century workforce that we now have.”

More broadly, he offered this summary of the nation’s state of mind: “There’s massive gridlock. Yet this is the most extraordinary country in the world. We have everything that is necessary: abundant in natural resources, the most innovative country in the world, the most creative place in the world, labor laws that are unique in the developed world, a big place, full of chances to expand, the history of productivity.

“All this stuff has just been cast aside, and we’re moping around like we’re France. I don’t want to be disrespectful, they have a lot of interesting things and great things. But we’re not France, for crying out loud. The crisis of opportunity is we’re not seizing the moment.”

And in regard to the 2016 presidential race specifically, he said: “I kinda know how a Republican can win, whether it’s me or somebody else. It has to be much more uplifting, much more positive and much more willing…to lose the primary to win the general [election] without violating your principles.”

So what will that mean in policy terms—what will candidate Bush be for rather than against? His remarks so far suggest the pillars will be energy independence, a simplified tax code, immigration reform and what he has come to call a “transformation” of the country’s education system.

He also talks about regulation—not so much eliminating regulation as bringing the regulatory schemes into the 21st century by making them simpler and more suited to the current economy. And, he told the auto dealers, “we need to invest in the long-term things like infrastructure and research and development” to kick up economic growth.

Are Republicans ready for upbeat? Are Americans? Jeb Bush appears set to find out.

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