03.31.15 9:15 AM ET

What Jeb Gets That Walker Doesn’t

Without an Embrace of Optimism, the GOP Is Dead

At least one observer isn’t happy with my quotes in Jonathan Martin’s latest New York Times piece about Jeb Bush vs. Scott Walker. (I’m not sure this will be the binary choice, but, for now, it does represent the contrasting styles and philosophies of the GOP’s top-tier; and I should mention that my wife formerly consulted for Ted Cruz’s 2012 Senate campaign, and currently consults for Rick Perry’s RickPAC.)

Specifically, I’ve noticed these two men are currently espousing very different messages. Bush is challenging the conservative base to be a more optimistic bigger tent, while Walker’s positions have evolved in the base’s direction—and, as of now, that is a decidedly less optimistic one. “One is a populist strategy that doubles down on turning out disaffected white men,” I told Martin. “The other is a gamble that conservatism can win in the free market of ideas amongst a diverse and changing 21st-century America.” This was not meant as a normative statement. Some smart observers, most notably RealClearPolitics’ Sean Trende, argue the smart strategic move for the GOP is to turn out more white voters. Others (count yours truly in this camp) believe that this is an unwise branding decision that will eventually prove mathematically untenable.

The point is that the Jeb vs. Walker matchup is about more than Jeb vs. Walker. As Greg Sargent implies, this matchup may serve as a surrogate battle over a larger question about the GOP’s future:

Will the Republican Party run for the White House in 2016 with a genuine effort to expand the party’s appeal beyond its core constituencies and make inroads with the voter groups that have buoyed Democrats in recent national elections? Or will Republicans mainly prioritize the need to further energize their core constituencies and hope they can continue outrunning demographic change?

At this point, casual observers are thinking: “Where is this coming from?” The answer is that one has to observe closely what the candidates say—and read between the lines—in order to sense the subtle messages each is conveying to his audience. Fortunately, Yahoo’s Jon Ward is also out with a piece that corroborates what others such as Martin and I are picking up on.

“In a recent speech here, the Wisconsin governor used the word ‘worry’ or ‘worried’ 12 times in the space of 15 minutes,” Ward notes. “Walker’s message, just a few months into his nascent (and still unofficial) presidential campaign, has been largely a negative one. There is an undertone of testiness in his stump speech, leavened with chest-swelling machismo fueled by his defeat of a recall effort in 2012 and his re-election in 2014,” he continues.

This is not to say that Walker is a bad person or governor (see my praise for Wisconsin’s Right to Work legislation), it’s more a commentary on the voters he has decided to court on the path to victory he seems to be following.

What we are witnessing here is two sides of the conservative movement. And, as is often the case, it is instructive to look back to Ronald Reagan for guidance. When he ran in 1976, he essentially ran as a typical green eyeshade Republican. The underlying premise here is that we live in a static world of limited resources. The pie is only so big, and we are all fighting over a slice of it. This leads to tribalism and a scarcity mentality. If others get a bigger slice, then you and I get a smaller one. But between 1976 and 1980, Jack Kemp introduced Reagan to the Laffer curve, and this changed everything.

Suddenly, you could grow the pie. The world was dynamic, not static! This optimistic worldview even transcended economics, altering conservatism (which had been a decidedly pessimistic philosophy) on a variety of issues. Let’s take immigration as an example. The static view is that immigrants take our jobs. The dynamic view is that they increase both the supply of labor and the demand for it. In other words, more people equals more ideas, more opportunities, and even more consumers.

In the wake of Barack Obama’s presidency, there is great worry about the future, and a hunger a populist candidate who can tap into the anger and fear that has spawned from the culmination of numerous factors—an economy where many are still left behind, globalization, demographic shifts, a rejection of policies such as Obamacare, and concerns about America’s standing around the world. But there is also an opportunity for an optimistic candidate—could be Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, or someone else—who can articulate conservative ideas to 21st-century Americans who may not be white or rural.

That person can, to paraphrase Reagan, appeal to our best hopes, not our worst fears. And that person can take back America, too—by winning converts. Right now, the GOP is at a crossroads. Which direction will it choose?