Ten potential Republican presidential candidates will speak at Bruce Rastetter's Iowa Agriculture Summit today, and a few more may send videotaped remarks. But only one GOP contender was the focus of a long and flattering feature by the Des Moines Register's chief political correspondent the day before the event.
When Jeb Bush hired longtime Iowa GOP consultant David Kochel, I figured friendly coverage in the Register would be coming to the former Florida governor. During last year's U.S. Senate campaign, just about every line Joni Ernst's backers wanted out there ended up in some Des Moines Register piece by Jennifer Jacobs. Still, Jacobs' spread on Bush in Friday's Des Moines Register shocked me. The message could hardly have been more perfectly tailored for Iowa Republicans if Bush's spin doctors had written it themselves.
Presenting Bush as first among equals
Jacobs has profiled other GOP presidential candidates and will get around to all of them before the Iowa caucuses, but the close look at Bush came at an ideal time. The national media and thousands of politically engaged Republicans will be paying attention to the Iowa Agriculture Summit this weekend. By devoting so much column space to Bush the day before the event, the Des Moines Register appears to view him as first among equals, rather than as one of nearly a dozen Republicans who will talk about farm and rural policies at the State Fairgrounds.
Leading with a jab at Bush's Iowa critics
The online version of Jacobs' story was headlined, "Jeb Bush: Barely a Republican, or 'conservative hero'?" The story looked better for Bush in the print version, where the front-page headline "Some in Iowa GOP view Bush skeptically" was qualified by the subhead "But Florida Republicans regard him as 'conservative hero,' state legislator says." Already Jacobs has set up the frame: people who know Bush well understand that he's a true conservative.
Bush's conservative Iowa detractors get one paragraph early in the story, featuring quotes from Sioux City pastor Cary Gordon. In nearly 1,400 words that follow, Jacobs does everything she can to undercut Gordon's assessment, starting with this "nut graph":
Comments like that invent a Bush persona that's wholly unfamiliar to Republican and Democratic politicos in Florida, where he was governor from 1999 to 2007.
Above the fold on the Des Moines Register's front page and in the top screen of the online version, Jacobs puts the reader on notice: Jeb Bush's Iowa critics don't know what they're talking about. She follows with these passages to close out the feature's introductory section:
"He's regarded as a conservative hero in Florida," Republican state Rep. Matt Gaetz told the Register. "As governor, he took on every liberal special interest group and won."
Democratic state Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, who lives in Sarasota, said: "He's a very serious guy, and he's very, very smart. He has his principles. In fact, he can be rigid and unyielding. He's an ideologue."
Florida leaders said Bush built the GOP almost from scratch in a Democrat-dominated state, then governed sharply to the right, preaching the gospel of fiscal and social conservatism.
Bush created the nation's first school voucher program, pushed accountability in public schools, chiseled away at taxes, fought to prevent abortions, shored up gun rights, cracked down on armed criminals, reformed Medicaid into a system of private managed-care providers and ended affirmative action in state hiring.
"I laugh now about people talking about Governor Bush being a moderate. He was perceived at the time for being the Attila the Hun of conservatives," said Nick Hansen, a Florida GOP campaign strategist.
Downplaying Bush's weakness in the latest Des Moines Register poll
It takes Jacobs fifteen paragraphs to get around the latest Iowa poll by Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg Politics. Those numbers prompted a Bloomberg Politics feature by John McCormick headlined, "Iowa Poll: Jeb Bush Has a Big Problem." The nut graph from McCormick's report was clear about where Bush will struggle with Republicans here:
Jeb Bush has major problems in Iowa. His vocal support for immigration reform and the national education standards known as Common Core bother many in the state's Republican base.
A Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll of likely participants in the state's 2016 Republican caucuses shows nearly two-thirds consider Bush's positions on those issues to be a deal-killer, or something they'd consider when deciding whether to support him. Just 32 percent have no problem with those stands.
In Jacobs' feature for yesterday's Register, the numbers don't sound nearly as bad:
Iowa isn't entirely hostile turf for Bush - 46 percent of Republicans who intend to vote in the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses in 2016 view Bush favorably, according to a late January Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa Poll. But 43 percent have a negative view. Eleven percent aren't sure. Forty percent think his political leanings are "about right." But 37 percent consider him to be "too moderate."
What's missing from that analysis is apparent when one looks at the tables from the Des Moines Register's initial report on that Selzer poll. Among likely presidential candidates, eight have higher favorability ratings than Bush does, while only Donald Trump and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have higher unfavorable numbers than Bush. Only Christie was considered "too moderate" by a higher percentage of Iowa poll respondents than Bush.
Framing Bush's record in ideal terms for him
McCormick's report on the Iowa poll identified the biggest problems for Bush as "Common Core" education standards and his support for immigration reform. Jacobs introduces the idea as follows:
A narrative has already begun to sink in here that conservatives should be skeptical of him, partly because he embraces academic standards for student achievement and is disinterested in deporting every immigrant living in the country illegally.
"Academic standards for student achievement" sounds less offensive to conservatives than "Common Core." The words "common core" (not capitalized) appear only once in Jacobs' feature, much further down.
The words "immigration reform," "amnesty," and "path to citizenship" are absent from Jacobs' feature, as is any mention of Bush's harsh criticism of Iowa Republican hero Steve King, or his belief that many illegal immigrants came to this country in an "act of love." To say Bush is "disinterested in deporting every immigrant living in the country illegally" sounds reasonable and pragmatic, like the way a campaign team would spin Bush's record for a Republican audience.
A long sidebar accompanying Jacobs' piece reads even more like a memo prepared by campaign strategists. Click through to read what the Register presents as "a snapshot of Republican Jeb Bush's record as Florida governor from January 1999 to January 2007." The conservative talking points go on and on: job creation, economic growth, tax cuts, high job approval ratings ("Chuck Grassley territory"), anti-abortion policies, pro-gun policies, building up Florida's cash reserves, cutting public employees, privatizing state services, ending affirmative action. The paragraphs on education lead with Bush's efforts to "take on teacher unions," then mention Florida's statewide voucher program and school choice policies before getting around to "academic standards" (the sidebar omits the phrase "Common Core").
A second sidebar focuses on Jeb Bush's volunteering in Iowa before his father's victory in the 1980 caucuses. He visited around 50 counties and reminisced about good food and running into Chuck Grassley (then seeking his first term in the U.S. Senate) on the campaign trail.
Including "negatives" that read like positives in disguise
Every long feature on a politician has to include some quotes from detractors. But just as a skilled job applicant can answer the "what's your biggest weakness" question with a flaw that sounds more like an asset, Jacobs presents negative comments about Bush that read more like praise, especially from a Republican perspective. We hear that Bush "can be impatient" and "does not suffer fools gladly." But we don't hear from any Florida conservative activists who felt that Bush didn't deliver enough on their issues.
Instead, Jacobs quotes two Democratic state legislators at length. One starts by saying that even Democrats who don't like Bush's policies "have a good deal of respect for him and his intelligence," adding that "His brother [President George W. Bush] made dumb decisions and didn't think things through and was glib. That is not Jeb Bush." The other Democrat leads with praise for how Bush handled a series of hurricanes that hit Florida during the last decade. He then criticizes Bush for cutting too much from the state budget--which of course sounds great to a likely Republican caucus-goer.
Crediting Bush with the resurgence of the Florida GOP
As I mentioned earlier, the introductory section of Jacobs' feature includes this sentence: "Florida leaders said Bush built the GOP almost from scratch in a Democrat-dominated state, then governed sharply to the right, preaching the gospel of fiscal and social conservatism." Deep into the piece, Jacobs fleshes out that point with a section on how Bush "went county to county" during the 1990s to build a "grassroots movement that eventually led to GOP control of both houses and the governor's office." She adds that Bush "made Florida history as the first Republican governor to win re-election."
Nowhere does Jacobs mention that the Republican Party enjoyed a similar resurgence in virtually every deep South state during the same period. The realignment of the old Confederacy from solid Democratic to solid Republican territory was decades in the making. First, southern voters swung to Republican candidates for president and Congress. During the 1990s, voting habits trickled down as more and more southerners picked Republicans for state offices. Bush's skills surely contributed to GOP victories in Florida, but the narrative Jacobs pushes of a man who "built the GOP almost from scratch in a Democrat-dominated state" gives Bush way too much credit and ignores broader American political trends.
Throwing barbs at Bush's main rivals
Bush's main competition in the Iowa caucuses will not be social conservatives like Mike Huckabee or Ben Carson, or the libertarian-leaning Rand Paul. To do respectably on caucus night, Bush only needs to consolidate the Republican establishment or business-oriented voters. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker are his leading rivals for that niche.
The sidebar Jacobs wrote as a "snapshot" of Bush's record conveniently includes a couple of digs.
BOND RATING: Florida saw multiple credit rating upgrades and had a AAA status, for the first time, when Bush left office. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie gets knocked for his state's credit rating; Standard & Poor's has docked New Jersey's general obligation bonds three times during his time in office. [...]
TEACHERS UNIONS: Bush backers say he was one of the original state executives to take on teacher unions, years before Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker gained attention for battling government labor unions.
Did Jacobs think to draw those contrasts? The copy reads as if Bush's strategists suggested the comparisons.
Des Moines Register readers have a right to expect more independent analysis by the paper's chief political reporter.
UPDATE: In his remarks to the Iowa Agriculture Summit audience, Bush was not afraid to call for a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants:
When asked about immigration, an issue he is criticized for by the Republican base, Bush remarked, "Immigrants that are here need to have a path to legalized status."
He added, "No one I know has a plan to deal with illegal immigrants to say they're going to be rounded up and taken away."
Bush went further saying that those who are in the country illegally should pay fines, learn English and work as opposed to being on government assistance, adding, "That they earn legalized status over the long haul - that they come out from of the shadows and can be productive with a provisional work permit. This is the only serious, thoughtful way to deal with this and we better start doing it because this is a competitive world."
SECOND UPDATE: On March 9, the Register published a long front-page article by Jacobs recapping Bush's public and private events over the weekend. Click through to read the whole piece, then tell me: is Jacobs reporting on a presidential candidate, or auditioning for a future job as press secretary?
The headline reads, "Jeb Bush turns heads in first Iowa swing." The lede sets the tone:
Jeb Bush hit Iowa hard during his first presidential trial run and upended some preconceived notions of what he's about.
But it remains to be seen whether he can win over the GOP here, with just under 11 months to go until the first-in-the-nation caucuses, Iowans said Sunday.
Jacobs quotes "Des Moines Republican influencer David Oman, who helped organize Bush's two-day Iowa swing," as saying Bush "demonstrated great knowledge and a level of detail that impressed people." She quotes several people who sang Bush's praises after attending fundraisers or meet and greets. She shares a touching anecdote to demonstrate Bush's fond regard for his father, President George H.W. Bush. She mentions that diners at the Cedar Rapids Pizza Ranch were "mildly irritated" by the "stampede" of people who came to see Jeb Bush there.
In the follow-up piece on Bush's Iowa visit, Jacobs addresses more directly some of his problems with local Republicans but still downplays that angle:
[Des Moines area lawyer Eric] Turner said some Republicans have reasonable concerns about Bush's support for controversial Common Core academic standards and a path to legal status for illegal immigrants, as well as the fact that a Bush has been president 12 of the past 26 years. [...]
A strong majority of GOP likely caucusgoers in Iowa don't see Bush's family pedigree as a problem. The late January Iowa Poll found that 63 percent say it's "no real problem" that Bush is the son of a former president and the brother of a former president. Nineteen percent say the White House has seen enough Bushes.
Again Jacobs omits another important finding from the same poll:
A Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll of likely participants in the state's 2016 Republican caucuses shows nearly two-thirds consider Bush's positions on those issues [immigration reform and Common Core] to be a deal-killer, or something they'd consider when deciding whether to support him. Just 32 percent have no problem with those stands.
The March 9 feature on Bush ends with the following passage:
As for Bush, he told the Pizza Ranch audience he's going to be back in Iowa a lot, where he will engage with voters, listening to their questions.
"It's not going to be a bubble campaign," he said.
He must be hoping Jacobs will be assigned to cover every one of those visits.