Echoing Romney, Jeb Reflects on Black Voters, 'Free Stuff'

Image: Jeb Bush
Republican presidential candidate former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks to local South Carolina republicans during the East Cooper Republican Women's Club Annual Shrimp Dinner at Alhambra Hall in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)Mic Smith / AP

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By Steve Benen

In the 2012 elections, Mitt Romney didn’t just struggle to connect with minority communities, he seemed unable to even understand them. After an unfriendly welcome at an NAACP convention, Romney told a group of donors, “I hope people understand this, your friends who like Obamacare, you remind them of this: if they want more stuff from government tell them to go vote for the other guy – more free stuff.”

Five months later, after he lost, Romney told donors President Obama won re-election because he bribed minority voters with “big gifts” – such as health care and education.

It quickly became obvious to Republican officials that Romney’s message, even if they agreed with the substance, was tone-deaf and counter-productive. It was a learning opportunity for the party – GOP candidates would have to be smarter when discussing these issues.

Jeb Bush did not take these lessons to heart – or if he did, he’s forgotten them.

The Florida Republican campaigned in South Carolina yesterday, speaking to a mostly white crowd, when a voter asked Bush’s outreach to African-American voters. The Washington Post reported on his response.

Bush pointed to his record on school choice and said that if Republicans could double their share of the black vote, they would win the swing states of Ohio and Virginia.

“Our message is one of hope and aspiration,” he said at the East Cooper Republican Women’s Club annual Shrimp Dinner. “It isn’t one of division and get in line and we’ll take care of you with free stuff."

I’ll go out on a limb and say this isn’t a winning message.

Just on the surface, it’s a little jarring to hear Bush – the grandson of a U.S. senator, the son of a president, and the brother of another president – give lectures on “earned success.” Thanks largely to his wealthy and powerful family, Jeb has received opportunities the vast majority of Americans can hardly imagine.

But as was the case with Romney, it’s the “free stuff” rhetoric that rankles most. To hear the former governor tell it, candidates can offer hope and aspiration, or they can tell voters “we’ll take care of you with free stuff.”

Bush didn’t specify what, exactly, constitutes “free stuff” – it’s a question I hope he’ll answer soon – but given his broader national platform, he’s likely referring to benefits such as access to basic medical care, a public school system, and a safety net to bolster families that fall on hard times.

In other words, the guy was born on third base, but is certain he hit a triple, believes he can connect with minority communities – by dismissing and deriding social-insurance programs as “free stuff.”

Roughly 6% of black voters supported Romney in 2012. It seems entirely possible Jeb Bush would fare about as well.

Update: Here’s a video clip of the quote.

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