Moon Reagan and Don Nixon never got this kind of reception.
But Jeb Bush, the brother and son of presidents, is already getting the full-court press to run for the White House in 2016. The Drudge Report went breathless with banner headlines on Monday when Jeb refused to rule out a future run on the Today show while promoting his new book with Clint Bolick, Immigration Wars.
The title of the book itself indicates that this isn’t a typical courtship. Jeb is presenting himself as a policy wonk and party reformer, not the typical approach to winning the GOP nomination. And for all the institutional benefits of being a Bush—a ready-made political and fundraising structure fueled by the promise of restoration to power—the reality is that his prospects would be far better if his last name were anything but “Bush.”
With another surname, Jeb would have catapulted to the top ranks of contenders back in 2012 on his own merits, as a popular former swing-state governor with a bold record as an education reformer and demonstrated success at winning over Hispanic voters. After Mitt Romney tanked the party’s performance with Hispanics in the last election, most Republicans realize that they need to change course and begin reaching out in earnest. That’s why Jeb’s leadership pushing for comprehensive immigration reform, alongside his brother’s Commerce secretary Carlos Gutierrez and Jeb’s Florida mentee Marco Rubio, is one of the most hopeful prospects for breaking through Washington gridlock this Congress.
A mark of Jeb’s seriousness is his willingness to criticize party power players. Romney comes under particular fire in Immigration Wars for his primary-campaign tactics. “By sharply criticizing Texas governor Rick Perry for his in-state tuition program for certain children of illegal immigrants, and by making his leading immigration advisor a prominent proponent of ‘self-deportation,’ Mitt Romney moved so far to the right on immigration issues that it proved all but impossible for him to appeal to Hispanic voters in the general election,” Bush and Bolick write. “However little or much anti-immigration rhetoric counts in Republican primaries, it surely succeeds in alienating Hispanic voters come the general election.”
This is true—and rarely said so bluntly by Republicans with presidential aspirations. Jeb also points out that Romney tanked with Asian-American voters and takes to task conservative pundits such as Heather MacDonald and Sam Francis who have advised the GOP to resist trying too hard to court Hispanic voters. Likewise, Jeb is one of the few potential presidential aspirants willing to publicly question the wisdom of Grover Norquist’s tax “pledge,” writing: “I ran for office three times. The pledge was presented to me three times. I never signed the pledge. I cut taxes every year I was governor. I don’t believe you outsource your principles and convictions to people.”
While Jeb counts himself as a proud faith-based conservative and theatrically cringes when words like “centrist” are attached to his effort to modernize the GOP, his message of outreach is rooted in demographic reality. “Republicans will face an ever-shrinking base—and ultimate extinction—if they continue to alienate the voters they lost in great numbers in 2012, including single women, blacks and gays,” he and Bolick write.
But political realities must be acknowledged, and Jeb came under some criticism on the first day of his book tour for allegedly backtracking on his support for a pathway to citizenship, a charge his spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof denies. “Governor Bush hasn’t changed his position,” she said via email. “The book provides a set of recommendations based on what is needed and what can generate bipartisan support. It is a comprehensive proposal, including a path to legal residency for those here illegally. The book does not prohibit individuals here illegally from ever earning citizenship … Not all immigrants want citizenship. They want to come out of the shadows, want to live here legally, and they want respect.”
Co-author Clint Bolick puts a slightly different emphasis on their proposals. “We support a pathway to permanent legal residence, not citizenship, for reasons of fairness and the rule of law,” he said. “Well in excess of 10 million people apply to immigrate to the U.S. each year. Precious few are given the opportunity. Many others have endured huge obstacles and lengthy waits to immigrate legally. It is unfair to give citizenship to those who came illegally. It also repeats the mistake of the 1986 amnesty, which signaled that illegal immigrants would suffer few consequences—and so we ended up with many more illegal immigrants. At the same time, we want people who are leading productive lives to be able to come out of the shadows and have legal status. Moreover, we propose multiple ways to ease the way for those who want to come to our country legally.”
Jeb is experienced enough in the ways of Washington to play the long game, and he is unlikely to make the perfect the enemy of the good. Immigration reform is in active negotiation, and he is signaling good faith, as well as assuming considerable political risk, by deciding to play an active role in a fight his brother lost to the right wing of his own party back in 2007.
Beyond the obstacles provided by his famous last name, one of the biggest considerations for Jeb before embarking on a presidential run is familial, according to sources. He has always played the dutiful son and brother—a role compounded by his responsibilities as a father and husband. His son George P. Bush is likely to run for land commissioner in Texas. His namesake son had been considering a run for Congress in the 26th Florida District seat lost by David Rivera but decided to keep working alongside his father in their family consulting company, Jeb Bush & Associates. His daughter, Noelle, appears to have won a battle with substance abuse, a common subplot for many American families. And his wife, Columba, has never been considered an enthusiastic participant in political campaigns, despite being a popular first lady of Florida.
The next presidential campaign is still a long way away, and I generally resist the impulse to write about the horserace when the main event of governing is going on. But Jeb is uniquely positioned to help resolve, or at least heal, the emerging GOP civil war. Americans have no love of aristocracy or political dynasties, but the Bushes have emerged as one of the few Republican brands that can unite all the fighting factions beneath the GOP banner. An unexpected dynasty, they bridge the Reagan-Bush years, connecting the remnants of the Northeastern establishment with contemporary Sunbelt conservatives and national security hawks.
That Jeb has deep credibility with the most important emerging constituency, Hispanic voters, and a genuine interest in policy initiatives make him a logically attractive if far from inevitable candidate. The potential for a 2016 presidential campaign that pits the Bushes versus the Clintons again—no doubt rebranded as just “Jeb” versus “Hillary”—is cause for some civic despair and nausea. But this Bush deserves credit for engaging in contentious debates and calling out the extremes in his own party. It is the kind of leadership we need to see more of in the GOP, whatever last name is attached.