September 26th, 2021


Jeb Bush: More Conservative Than You Think

Ramesh Ponnuru

By Ramesh Ponnuru

Published Oct. 26, 2015

Jeb Bush has lately been defending his brother George -- the former president -- against Donald Trump's criticism, and George is raising funds for Jeb's presidential campaign. What all this fraternal support obscures is the extent of the policy differences between the two. Despite his reputation for moderation, on issue after issue Jeb has taken positions that are significantly to the right of his brother's -- and of every other president in recent memory.

Start with taxes. Like his brother in 2000, Jeb Bush is running at a time when the top statutory income-tax rate is 39.6 percent. George W. Bush proposed reducing that to 33 percent. Jeb wants to cut it to 28 percent. George left taxes on businesses largely alone. Jeb wants to reduce the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent, and let businesses write off the costs of their investments immediately. George kept the alternative minimum tax in place, too, where Jeb wants to eliminate it. All in all, Jeb's plan is far more oriented toward supply-side economics than George's was.

On spending, too, Jeb has tried to stake out a position to the right of his brother, without directly criticizing him. He said in May that "during my brother's time, Republicans spent too much money." One of George's major promises in 2000 was to create a new subsidy for prescription-drug purchases by the elderly, which eventually became Medicare Part D. Jeb has no comparable initiative. He says his brother's plan should have been paid for, and has spoken positively about Representative Paul Ryan's proposal to restrain Medicare spending.

In important respects, Jeb's health-care positions are also more conservative than his brother's. For years, conservative think-tankers pushed Republicans to change the tax treatment of health insurance so that people who buy coverage for themselves can get an equivalent tax break to those who get it through their employers -- and without having to obey highly prescriptive federal regulations on what kind they can buy. George Bush's administration made only a half-hearted effort to do so, too late in his term to make a difference. Jeb has advanced a plan to create a much more competitive individual market.

Even on education -- where he has sustained criticism from conservatives for his support of Common Core standards -- Jeb is running to the right of his brother. George ran on "No Child Left Behind," an ambitious plan to leverage federal dollars to reform schools in every state. Jeb says that Washington's role in education should be limited, that it shouldn't interfere in state standard-setting, and that it should offer more flexibility in using federal funds. Jeb also thinks families should be able to use their share of federal aid for poor students to pay for private school. George never called for boosting school choice that way.

The brothers have similar views on immigration. But Jeb goes further than George in siding with the critics, mostly conservative, who think reuniting extended families should not be a priority. He'd prefer more skills-based immigration.

This pattern holds on a range of lower-profile issues, too. Jeb wants to reimpose what he calls the "Reagan rule," which would prevent organizations that perform abortions, notably Planned Parenthood, from receiving federal money. That's a step that his brother declined to take. George supported the Export-Import Bank and the renewable fuel standard. Jeb opposes both, treating them as unwarranted government interference in free markets. George favored renewing the ban on "assault weapons" that President Bill Clinton had signed, and which every president since Gerald Ford has supported. Jeb opposes that, too.

This column isn't an endorsement of Jeb Bush. Although my wife works for him, I'm neutral in the race. But Jeb's reputation for being a moderate has a larger significance: It's a sign of just how successful conservatives have been at moving the Republican Party rightward. If he wins the nomination, notwithstanding his low poll numbers today, it will be taken as a defeat for conservatives. Yet Jeb Bush has given every indication that he'd be the most conservative president we've had in a long time.


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Ramesh Ponnuru has covered national politics and public policy for 18 years. He is an author and Bloomberg View columnist.