Republican hopeful Jeb Bush is cleaning up his worst political mess since stumbling over questions about the Iraq War months ago, a troublesome turn for a candidate selling himself as the party’s steadiest option. The episode, along with Bush’s persistently weak favorability ratings, could give opponents an opening to undermine his image as the field’s most electable alternative to Donald Trump.
His most recent struggle came this week after he questioned whether the government spends too much on medical care for women. The former Florida governor raised the issue on Tuesday in an appearance at the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, where he backed the as-of-now unsuccessful efforts in Congress to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood.
“You could take dollar for dollar — although I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues — but if you took dollar for dollar, there are many extraordinarily fine organizations, community health organizations, that exist, federally sponsored community health organizations, to provide quality care for women on a wide variety of health issues,” Bush said.
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton seized on the quote immediately, calling it “absolutely, unequivocally wrong” on Twitter. Bush said in a statement later that he “misspoke” and meant to address only funding earmarked for Planned Parenthood — not broader spending on women’s health.
President Obama’s campaign frequently highlighted Mitt Romney’s calls to defund Planned Parenthood in 2012, and it’s a good bet that footage of Bush’s remarks will make it into Clinton’s ads should the two meet in the general election.
Making matters worse, Bush’s remarks could not have come at a more inconvenient time for the social conservative movement he was trying to court on Tuesday.
Social conservatives are on offense this month over a series of edited, undercover videos that show Planned Parenthood officials discussing compensation for fetal tissue remains used in medical research. The anti-abortion group behind the videos, Center for Medical Progress, claims the footage shows Planned Parenthood skirts rules barring any profit from fetal remains, a charge Planned Parenthood strongly denies. Either way, Democrats have been rattled by the videos — Clinton herself called them “disturbing” and raised the specter of a Congressional investigation into fetal tissue research before pivoting to a more robust defense of Planned Parenthood this week.
The story has served social conservatives well because it’s turned the debate around Planned Parenthood’s funding away from generic conversations around the organization’s health services and toward the unsettling details of abortion procedures, as well as a set of specific allegations against the group. Bush’s comments have the exact opposite effect, inviting Democrats to launch into a far more favorable fight over whether $500 million out of $1 trillion-plus in federal health spending each year is sufficient to cover “women’s health issues.”
Republicans have very little room for error when it comes to taking on Planned Parenthood. The most recent NBC News/WSJ poll found that 45% of Americans had a favorable opinion of the group versus 30% who did not, a far better number than any candidate running for president or either of the two major parties.
By comparison, Bush’s favorable rating in the same poll was 26% to 40% unfavorable. His case to Republican voters rests on his image as the competent grownup in the field, which means he can’t afford to leave a trail of gaffes that undercut his electability.