Jeb! Reboot Includes Religious Liberty Effort

As part of his effort to reboot his flailing presidential campaign, Jeb Bush has unveiled a Religious Liberty Advisory Commission, presumably to up his bona fides with religious conservatives who are flocking to candidates like Ben Carson.

The committee was highlighted as a key voter engagement effort in a campaign strategy presentation given over the weekend attempting to quell a potential stampede of campaign money to Marco Rubio, who is rapidly gaining steam as the consensus electable GOP candidate. According to the campaign, the commission “will help Jeb identify threats to the First Amendment and assist in crafting strategies to protect our first freedom.”

Bush’s commission includes a number of prominent conservatives, including Jane Abraham, chair of the board of the Susan B. Anthony List, former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Catholic University’s Robert Destro, former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See and Harvard University professor Mary Ann Glendon, former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See and former U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Nicholson, Rev. Robert Schenck, a prominent evangelical and president of the National Clergy Council, and Jim Towey, the former director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Bush has been notably weak in talking about religious liberty issues like same-sex marriage in the near-apocalyptic terms favored by conservative voters. By contrast, Rubio has demonstrated ease in discussing religious liberty issues in pseudo-evangelical language that resonates with both Catholic and Evangelical conservatives.

But if the make-up of Bush’s commission is any indication, he’s unlikely to gain much traction on the issue. While these figures may be heavy hitters either intellectually or institutionally, they’re not the high profile and folksy figures that would immediately signal to conservative voters that Jeb’s concerns are theirs. Not at a time when rivals like Ted Cruz are holding intimate discussions with religious liberty martyrs. 

Many of the most high-profile figures on the commission actually date back to the administration of he-who-shall-not-be named: George W. Bush. Glendon Nicholson, and Francis Rooney, were all ambassadors to the Holy See during the Bush administration, while Towey was the head of Bush’s faith-based office. Jane Abraham’s husband Spencer Abraham was Bush’s Secretary of Energy. And it was Nicholson who as head of the RNC during the 2000 election cycle spearheaded W’s then-groundbreaking, highly orchestrated outreach to conservative Catholics on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.

Unfortunately for Jeb, it’s not 2000. It’s no longer sufficient to leverage opposition to abortion and gay marriage to attract religious conservatives. Today it’s all about God-fearing Christians being forced to bake gay wedding cakes and Kim Davis. As a result, Bush’s religious liberty commission feels a lot like his campaign in general: dated, a little too restrained, and tone-deaf to the issues motivating Republican primary voters.