Free stuff is back. Responding to a man at a South Carolina Republican gathering last week who observed that Republicans had little visible support among African Americans, Jeb Bush harkened back to the Romney campaign four years ago. Unlike the Democrats, Bush suggested, his message to black voters was not to "get in line and we'll take care of you with free stuff." Rather, Bush explained, his vision is of a world where African Americans "can achieve earned success."
Jeb's is a message that might work if it came from his political protégé Marco Rubio, a child of immigrants and product of Miami-Dade County public schools. But Jeb is the scion of a generations-old political family and the product of Phillips Andover Academy. The notion of earned success is a bit harder to parse for a man who was given his first job by his father's close friend James Baker at a bank that Baker owned. From then on -- whether in his real estate or political pursuits -- Jeb's career was nurtured through the extensive Bush family relationship network.
One of the things that sets Jeb apart from Donald Trump is that Jeb seems to have no idea when he is being offensive, while Trump relishes every moment of it. Bush's free stuff meme -- that African Americans vote Democrat because they get free stuff -- is not just paternalistic, it ignores the long history of the African Americans as supporters of the Republican Party -- the party of Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, after all -- up until the post-World War II era, and the political machinations by the GOP that prompted black voters to shift their political allegiance.
Harry Truman's integration of the Army and the ensuing Democratic Party embrace of civil rights as part of its party platform in 1948 -- in the face of bitter opposition from the segregationist "Dixiecrat" wing of the party -- started the migration of black voters to the Democratic Party. The passage of civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s may have prompted further movement of the black electorate, but it is important to note that Republicans in Congress voted in larger percentages for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 than did Democrats. It was Richard Nixon's active outreach to invite the southern segregationist wing of the Democratic Party to join the GOP that marked the end of significant black support for the Republican Party.
It was not the free stuff that the Democrats offered, but rather an affirmative decision by the Republican Party to trade its historical base among New England Republicans and black voters for the southern and segregationist wing of the Democratic Party. To suggest that African American voters left the Republican Party in search of free stuff has the history wrong. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, blacks did not leave the Republican Party, the Republican Party left them.
Jeb seemed oblivious to the fact that he was proffering his free stuff narrative while campaigning in a state that had only weeks earlier lowered the Confederate flag from its Capitol grounds -- a flag that had been raised in 1948 at the time that the Dixiecrats walked out of the Democratic Party convention. He seemed to see no irony in his bemoaning the appeal of free stuff in a state that seceded from Union lest its white population and economy be deprived of the ultimate free stuff: the free labor of enslaved black Americans. And he no doubt gave no thought to the fact that the State of South Carolina is among the largest recipients of free stuff from the federal government -- that is to say from the rest of us -- as each year it receives back from the federal government far more than its citizens pay in taxes, with 2014 net revenues from the federal government equal to 26.7 percent of its gross state product. Far from being a state built on earned success, South Carolina is built on a culture of free stuff.
Jeb's defense of his remarks this week on Fox News Sunday -- reiterating his assertion that people "don't want free stuff" -- are truly the words of a man who was born into wealth. Of course people want free stuff. We want roads and education and prescription drugs and other people to fight our wars. And we don't want to pay for them. The World Wide Web and the social networks that now consume our free time are built on people's preference for free stuff, even if they have to trade away their privacy in the bargain. And despite his wealth, Jeb is no different. Jeb -- like his tormentor Donald Trump -- could have chosen to fund his own political campaign, but he prefers to take hundreds of millions of dollars of other people's money, money that Jeb continues to insist is free -- that it comes with no strings attached -- despite the scorn that Trump rightfully heaped upon him for that suggestion.
Jeb just cannot get out of his own way. Early on, he stumbled over the question of the Iraq war, and could not bring himself to accept that for most Americans the trillions of dollars spent and tens of thousands of young soldiers killed or maimed--not to mention the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties -- have not led the nation to a better place. Then he offered a tax plan that delivers massive tax cuts to the rich in the midst of a campaign where Donald Trump has drawn an angry Republican base to endorse his call to increase taxes on the rich. More recently, Jeb published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal suggesting the wide ranging steps he would take to spur deregulation, only to find his plan ridiculed by the normally conservative readership as little more than a pandering road map for business lobbyists and campaign fundraising.
Jeb increasingly has the aura of an aging football coach trying to get by on a playbook of a prior era. Donald Trump has made waves this year by channeling the anger of Republican primary voters who for decades now have seen their incomes stagnate and prospects for the future dim. Trump has begun to raise questions of class privilege and income mobility, issues that for too long have been forbidden topics in our political discourse. But Jeb has been unable to adapt his message or his narrative on earned success to even recognize the differences between his world and that of most Americans. It is not just his inability to grasp the disdain among the Republican base for his brother's record of war and spending, but Jeb has shown himself to have a tin ear for the very real resentments toward the political class and economic elites that have become central to the race. Instead, he just keeps returning to the bromides of the Reagan era--cut taxes, cut regulation, and it will be morning again in America. His meme about free stuff and earned success is just par for the course.
But no one is buying what Jeb is selling. Bush might continue to be the frontrunner among the Republican field based upon prediction models, but that just shows how difficult it is has been for the political cognoscenti to believe how poorly Jeb is performing. With all that money and all of those connections -- the free stuff on which his campaign of inevitability was constructed -- it is finally sinking in that Jeb himself may simply not be up to the job.