Jeb Bush detached himself from the growing group of conservative presidential candidates by speaking openly about climate change, analysts and strategists say, inviting support from moderate voters and attacks from the right.
His comments Friday appear to be the first among Republican White House hopefuls to suggest that global warming is a problem that could be addressed by international negotiations to curb emissions in China and other nations. Many Republicans are critical of the talks and the organization overseeing that effort, the United Nations.
The former Florida governor also said that he’s "concerned" about climate change, signaling a strategic decision to reinforce his establishment position before other candidates can make a play for centrist voters, said Norman Ornstein, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute.
"It may not be a bad tactical move," he said.
Bush has already attracted discontent among tea party groups for his supportive positions on immigration and the education initiative Common Core. Both are considered blasphemous among the conservative right. So adding climate change is unlikely to damage him further among this part of the political spectrum.
"People on the radical anti-establishment side of the Republican ledger, which is a whole lot, already see Bush as anathema," Ornstein noted.
Bush made his remarks Friday in New Hampshire during a question-and-answer portion of an event hosted by the New England Council.
"The climate is changing, and I’m concerned about that," Bush said. "But to be honest with you, I’m more concerned about the hollowing out of our country, the hollowing out of our industrial core, the hollowing out of our ability to compete in an increasingly competitive world."
Later, after saying that the nation is achieving lower emissions through the use of natural gas, he suggested that the United States should help other countries develop their own greenhouse gas reductions.
"We need to restore our competitive posture, which I think our energy revolution will allow us to do, and then simultaneously … be cognizant of the fact that we have this climate change issue and we need to work with the rest of the world to negotiate a way to reduce carbon emissions," he said.
Political messaging by ‘dog whistle’
Bush didn’t address the degree to which he believes that people are contributing to global warming, but he did link energy generation to the production of greenhouse gases.
It was seen as an important moment by NextGen Climate, the deep-pocketed group launched by billionaire Tom Steyer before the 2014 elections to pressure Republicans who question the science behind warming.
"This is a critical step forward for the Republican candidate, but it can only be the beginning if America hopes to truly lead the world in combating climate change once and for all," the organization said in a press release.
With Bush maneuvering to the center of the Republican electorate, that leaves Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker competing for a concentrated collection of conservative voters, analysts say. Others are in that heap, too, including former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
At the same time, Bush could be trying to set himself ahead of other potential moderate candidates before they enter the race, according to strategists and analysts. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have both said they believe in climate change.
"Climate change has become a demarcation line in the Republican Party between the moderates and the conservatives," said Mike McKenna, who has advised some of the GOP candidates on energy issues. "It’s a dog whistle. What it tells me now is Bush has announced himself as the one who wants to win the moderate primary, not the conservative primary."
Bold move or liability?
During the primary fights of 2012, Mitt Romney was largely alone as the establishment candidate after Jon Huntsman dropped out. Conservative candidates argued among themselves, with the general feeling that whoever emerged as the tea party favorite could beat Romney and become the nominee, Ornstein said.
He thinks it will be different in 2016. There will be more competition in the middle, he projects, as candidates like Rubio and Walker "straddle" the establishment positions, and as everyone targets Bush as the presumptive front-runner.
"I think they’re going to go after Bush a lot," Ornstein said.
Speaking about climate change might amplify that. "It’s a liability," asserted Frank Torres, a political analyst in Orlando.
Bush might have gone either way on climate change. His ideas on the issue have traveled an arc that could lead voters to think he believes it’s happening, or he doesn’t. In 2009, he called himself a "skeptic." Two years later, he said "it may be real," but then added that it’s "not unanimous among scientists that it is disproportionately man-made."
He’s also spoken favorably about energy efficiency and the positive impact that natural gas can have on cutting carbon emissions. When he was governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007, a period during which a string of catastrophic hurricanes crashed into the state, Bush pursued an $11 billion program to restore the Everglades. The state was on the hook for half; a federal commitment handled the rest.
He’s also gotten on the wrong side of tea party groups, despite being seen by some analysts as more conservative than his brother, George W. Bush. Late last year, he suggested that the hyper-conservative brand doesn’t appeal to most voters. Instead, Bush said the successful nominee in 2016 should be guided by this concept: "Lose the primary to win the general" election.
That sober style of directness can appeal to all sorts of voters, including those who disagree with him, said Nikki Lowrey, a former aide to Bush who oversaw Jon Huntsman’s presidential campaign in Florida.
"The Governor has a long history of tackling tough, sensitive topics head on that many others choose to deflect," Lowrey said in an email. "That he believes an international discussion on reducing carbon emissions is worthwhile is not shocking, it’s bold and honest."