Republican candidates are dividing between those who gaze back and those who look ahead
HYPHENATED America, a fast-growing country of fluid, overlapping and proudly worn identities, makes lots of conservatives uneasy. Jeb Bush, the former Republican governor of Florida, is so comfortable in this new America that on June 15th he launched his bid for the White House there. Serenaded by Cuban musicians and flanked by his Mexican-born wife, Mr Bush announced his candidacy in a gymnasium at Miami Dade College, a diverse, no-frills academy offering mostly technical and vocational degrees to 165,000 students.
In content, Mr Bush’s speech could have been given by many former Republican governors. He boasted about his record of cutting taxes and vetoing spending bills. Daringly for the son and brother of former presidents, he managed to denounce the “pampered elites of Washington” without blushing.
What marked his speech out was its stated audience. Mr Bush explicitly appealed to voters beyond the flinty core of conservative activists who dominate the primary contests that will choose his party’s presidential candidate next year. He promised to woo the many Americans who express their love of country in a different language, a message he underlined by dropping into fluent Spanish. During the campaign ahead, he promised to face all political issues “without flinching”.
Fans at the Miami rally had no problem deciphering this coded talk. Sam Guan, a Chinese-American who brought 200 supporters and a banner reading: “It’s the right time to be RIGHT! Asian-Americans for Jeb”, praised Mr Bush for working to improve schools in Florida and for supporting “compassionate” immigration policies. Ricardo Arana, a 20-year-old student and self-declared independent, approvingly called the former governor “a bit more moderate” than his Republican rivals.
Lots of Republicans call Mr Bush a moderate, though the historical record is more complicated. Mr Bush mostly governed as a conventional conservative, whether curbing access to abortion, granting new rights to gun-owners or exposing public schools to more competition. Where he breaks with more doctrinaire rivals is on questions of tone. He is, for instance, willing to call government a force for good when it gets a “few big things right”, such as raising standards in education. His launch was filled with tales of how he had expanded state assistance for the most vulnerable Floridians, such as disabled children. There are echoes of the compassionate conservatism that carried his brother, George W. Bush, to the presidency in 2000. On one big question, immigration, Jeb Bush is an outlier in the 2016 field: one of the few Republicans willing to call for a pathway to legal status for the millions living in America without the right papers.
His strategy is a gamble. Plenty of grassroots activists single out Mr Bush as one candidate they cannot abide. This was true in spades at a campaign rally in Iowa earlier this month, hosted by that state’s newest senator, Joni Ernst, crafted as a triple tribute to military veterans, Harley-Davidson motorcycles and barbecued pork, and billed as “Joni’s Roast and Ride”. Many spectators simply growled that they do not consider Mr Bush a conservative at all. Often this is a judgment on specific policies, such as immigration and Mr Bush’s support for Common Core, a set of education standards that many on the right consider a plot by federal bureaucrats to indoctrinate America’s children. But listen carefully and another divide separates Mr Bush from many rivals. Most other Republicans with White House ambitions do not sound like politicians speaking to the America of the 21st century. Instead, they pander to voters whose beliefs and assumptions were shaped in a previous age.
Mr Bush skipped the Roast and Ride. Seven other presidential hopefuls turned up, offering tributes to conservative culture that at times verged on performance art. Rick Perry, a former governor of Texas, rode to the barbecue on a Harley belonging to a disabled war hero, accompanied by decorated ex-Navy SEALs, to raise funds for a charity that gives puppies to military veterans. Most of the seven offered laments for a country led astray by Barack Obama and Democrats who, in their telling, do not truly believe in American exceptionalism. Mr Perry assured Iowans that a few good policies and a change of leadership could bring an extraordinary country roaring back. The best-received speech, from Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, accused Democrats of fostering dependence on government, and so betraying the American Dream. America’s rare strength, Mr Walker said, is that as long as folk are willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter what class they were born into, or what their parents did for a living. This was a worryingly complacent statement, ignoring overwhelming evidence that American social mobility has stalled, presenting thoughtful politicians of left and right with a challenge that they cannot duck. The crowd, older and whiter than the national average (as is Iowa), applauded anyway.
One candidate at the Roast and Ride, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, broke with the mood of glib nostalgia. “I love the 20th century, I was born in the 20th century,” he told the crowd—but now is a new century, with an economy transformed by such forces as globalisation and automation, eliminating jobs that once sustained middle-class lives. Mr Rubio, a young Cuban-American from Miami and a Jeb Bush protégé, wants Republicans to be the party that stands for the future, with education and tax policies to fit Americans for a competitive new world.
No candidate has a lock on the Republican presidential contest, and certainly not Mr Bush, who is merely one of a top tier that also includes Mr Walker and Mr Rubio. But a divide is emerging among the crowded field. Too many contenders have messages wistful for a lost past. Only a few sound excited about a changing America. Their party should heed them.