Jeb Bush tries to woo (or neutralize) the evangelicals

    Jeb Bush knows that he can’t win big with religious conservatives. His goal is merely to neutralize them, to hose them down with godly bromides, to ensure that they don’t coalesce behind a single rival and thus derail his candidacy.

    This was obvious on Saturday, when he delivered the commencement address at Liberty University, the school founded by religious right leader Jerry Falwell. He sought to reassure evangelical voters – who dominate the early Iowa and South Carolina contests – that he’s guided by his religious convictions, that he’s not a closet liberal bent on driving God from the public square.

    Jeb said that his government decisions would be “influenced by my Christian faith.” He needs to say stuff like that, because right now he’s dead in the water with evangelicals. They generally believe that he’s too moderate on immigration, on the Common Core education standards, and on gay marriage.  Especially on gay marriage. The latest poll of Iowa Republicans puts him in seventh place, with five percent of the likely caucus-goers. Iowa votes first in the nation, and Gallup says that 37 percent of the likely GOP caucus-goers are evangelicals.

    Most notable on Saturday, however, was the stuff that Jeb did not say. He said that he’d be “influenced” by his Christian beliefs, but he never said what he would actually do in office. Evangelicals are freaked out that the U.S. Supreme Court will legalize gay marriage in June, but Jeb never mentioned it. Extremists candidates like Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee are out there claiming that God trumps the Supreme Court, but Jeb was silent on the subject. (Which means that he might – gasp – accept the rule of law.)

    Indeed, one top conservative website, sponsored by longtime right-wing activist Richard Viguerie, got very agitated about one particular passage in Jeb’s speech. Jeb was in the midst of praising the wonderfulness of Christianity when he called it “the most dynamic, inclusive, and joyful message that ever came into the world.”

    Uh oh. Jeb called Christianity inclusive! Alarm bells clanged at the right-wing website, where the only I-word that apparently passes muster is intolerance.

    Viguerie’s minions wrote: “Being ‘inclusive’ is the justification used by the fast-dying establishment protestant churches…to accept and perform same-sex ‘marriage,’ despite the conflict between that practice and timeless and universal Judeo-Christian ‘moral standard’ that marriage is between one man and one woman.”

    So jeb flunked the litmus test by invoking the wrong I-word. Worse yet, he is hiring campaign staffers who endorse inclusion. This Buzzfeed story is riling the religious right:

    When Bush officially launches his presidential bid later this year, he will likely do so with a campaign manager who has urged the Republican Party to adopt a pro-gay agenda; a chief strategist who signed a Supreme Court amicus brief arguing for marriage equality in California; a longtime adviser who once encouraged her minister to stick to his guns in preaching equality for same-sex couples; and a communications director who is openly gay.

    To an extent that would have been unthinkable in past elections, one of the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination has stocked his inner circle with advisers who are vocal proponents of gay rights. And while the Bush camp says his platform will not be shaped by his lieutenants’ personal beliefs, many in the monied, moderate, corporate wing of the GOP – including pragmatic donors, secular politicos, and other members of the establishment – are cheering the early hires as a sign that Bush will position himself as the gay-friendly Republican in the 2016 field.

    Most evangelical voters can’t abide that kind of tolerance. As Viguerie’s minions wrote, establishment Republicans like Jeb “are apparently sincere people who inform their personal lives with religious values, but who are incapable of translating those values into effective public policy. Or who, wishing to be ‘inclusive,’ accept the latest heresy as a substitute for the timeless verities of the plain language of the Bible.”

    But in the end, I doubt Jeb will be derailed by the voters who want Biblical governance. Most of what he said Saturday was rhetorically in sync with evangelical beliefs; he probably doesn’t scare those voters the way Mitt Romney did (because Mitt was Mormon, as well as a perceived moderate). So it’s not likely that they’ll form a stop-Jeb movement and unite behind one rival candidate – not in this race, where they have a plethora of choices (Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, maybe Scott Walker). Besides, after South Carolina holds its primary, the big diverse states vote and the map gets friendlier for candidates like Jeb.

    And there’s no point in pandering to the evangelicals anyway, because they’re never satisifed. On Saturday, Jeb tried to flatter them by saying that Christians are moral stewards of the environment: “Men and women of your generation are striving to be protectors of creation, instead of just users.” But Viguerie’s minions didn’t like that. They quoted Bible passages which decree that man has “dominion” over the earth and all its creatures. Ergo, God wants us to be users.

    If Jeb can neutralize these people, he probably deserves the party nod.

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    By the way, I now count 12 likely Republican candidates: Bush, Walker, Cruz, Huckabee, Perry, Carson, Santorum (to announce late this month), Lindsey Graham (to announce early next month), Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina, and Chris Christie. How will the debate planners manage to fit 12 people on one stage, and give everyone adequate time? Will the planners try to winnow the contestants who stand lowest in the polls or who have the least money? Serious questions. The first debate is slated for August.

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    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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