Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Never mind the GOP. Can Jeb Bush save himself?

AN ITEM from the Daily Beast e-mail blast asked the tabloid-breathless question: “Can Jeb Bush save the GOP?”

And so it begins. Just when you thought presidential politics was more or less over until sometime in 2015, we’re getting the first feverish murmurs, the first names being bandied about as possible contenders for the Oval Office.

John Ellis Bush, the former Republican governor of Florida, brother to one president and son to another, has been making quasi-presidential noises for years now — not overtly getting into the act, but positioning himself as a wise, rational, optically centrist alternative to the hair-on-fire ideologues defining the Republican Party today.

His first foray into presumptive presidential politics wasn’t too promising. Thanks to a less than artful backwards triple-axel on the matter of immigration reform, Jeb Bush has managed to put some of his reputation as a clear-thinking politician in danger. Mitt Romney hasn’t retired his campaign Etch a Sketch; he’s just handed it off to Jeb Bush.

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On a book tour to promote Tuesday’s publication of “Immigration Wars: Forging An American Solution,” co-written with attorney Clint Bolick, Bush took to the airwaves this week, responding to what amounted to the same general question from show hosts: What’s your prescription for resolving the immigration issue?

In a Monday interview on the “Today” show, Bush said, “We can’t continue to make illegal immigration an easier path than legal immigration.” This more than suggests a tolerance for a harder line on the 11 million undocumented people already here.

Contrast that with what he said on MSNBC’s conservative outpost, “Morning Joe,” the next day. “If you can craft that in law, where you can have a path to citizenship where there isn’t an incentive for people to come here illegally, I’m for it.”

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CONTRAST that with what he told Charlie Rose on CBS News back on June 12. Bush spoke of “a path of citizenship, which I would support, and that does put me ... probably out of the ... mainstream of most conservatives.”

Now weigh those statements against what should be his defining position on this issue: the one that made it into the book: “It is absolutely vital to the integrity of our immigration system that actions have consequences — in this case, that those who violated the law can remain but cannot obtain the cherished fruits of citizenship. ... To do otherwise would signal once again that people who circumvent the system can still obtain the full benefits of American citizenship.”

First there is a path to citizenship, then there is no path to citizenship, then there is.

Or not. It's hard to tell. If by some chance he’s really trying to say the same thing four different ways, he needs to sharpen the thread, cut through to the unifying idea that moves this ball down the field.

As it is now, and whatever the reason for it might be, Bush has fumbled delivery of a message on immigration that he, co-author of a presumably authoritative book, should have nailed down by now.

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Jeb Bush has his supporters, those still dazzled by the Bush name, its history and its possibilities in an early field with no defining standouts (yet). John Avlon gushed Tuesday in The Daily Beast: “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.”

That might have been true, once. Maybe during Poppy Bush’s presidency. Possibly during W’s administration. But not today. The “fighting factions beneath the GOP banner” today include those who condemn both Bush #41 for violating a no-taxes pledge back in the day, and Bush #43 for exploding the federal government over eight years — and basically making the Tea Party movement not so much possible as inevitable.

The overall rightward tilt of the Republican Party in recent years has led to it losing some good people, lawmakers for whom the word “compromise” didn’t necessarily equate with “surrender.” Cases in point: Richard Lugar of Indiana and Olympia Snowe of Maine, two who were political centrists compared to their colleagues in Congress. Lugar got primaried last year for being too reasonable; Snowe just plain had enough of the bickering and interparty poison and resigned.

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IF JEB BUSH gets in this thing in 2016, he’ll have to contend with that double-edged dance: placating the hard core of the Republican right while looking mainstream enough, centrist enough to appeal to the broad cross-section of American voters who aren’t conservatives.

Avlon assumes that the same core of voters who went for Bush #41 in 1988 and Bush #43 in 2000 can be counted on to work that magic for Bush the Third. This is certainly wrong for the simplest reason there is: It’s not their America anymore. The power of the Bushes’ brand has been eroded by time, demographics, their own White House policies, and the slow emerging of new conservative voices and faces eager to take their place in the spotlight.

However effective the Bush brand was in uniting disparate factions of Republicans a generation ago (or even a decade ago), it doesn’t matter to an electorate that’s more diverse now — racially and ethnically, socially and technologically — than it ever was back then.

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To say nothing of younger. The name Bush doesn’t have the frisson of recognition it had in 1988 (when there were 36 million fewer voters in the United States than there are now), or 2000 (when there were 10.7 million fewer voters than there are now).

For millions of today’s younger voters, George H.W. Bush is a figure from the history books, known as much for jumping out of airplanes as anything he did as the 41st president of the United States. Jeb Bush may not be able to do much about that; he’s been out of the governor’s office for six years himself.

Ironically, if Jeb Bush runs, and despite his familial predecessors in the White House, he will be in the unlikely position of having to explain himself and his biography to a wide swath of the American electorate that never lived in Florida, doesn’t remember his father and never liked his brother. If Jeb runs, a name brand will need to reintroduce itself to modern American politics. And voters.

Avlon assumes that those voters four years from now will do the same thing they did 24 years ago. That’s not likely to happen.

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THE SINS of the father and the brother are one thing. Then there are the things that Jeb Bush has to answer for himself. The issue of gun control, for example, has lately emerged as an existential issue in the national life. It’s one issue on which he’s got some ‘plainin’ to do.

As governor, Bush signed Florida Statute 776-012 —shorthanded forever as Stand Your Ground — into law in late April of 2005. According to the controversial law, “a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if:

“(1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony ...”

“It’s common sense to allow people to defend themselves,” Gov. Bush said then. “When you’re in a position where you’re being threatened, there’s a life-threatening situation, to have to retreat and put yourself in a very precarious situation ... you know, defies common sense.”

Since the SYG law went into effect, tragedy’s followed. The St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Bay Times reported that, by 2010, the Stand Your Ground defense had been invoked in 93 cases resulting in 65 deaths statewide. It might have been expected. When a law’s based on perception of a threat, however momentary that perception might be, there’s way too much room for criminal or overzealous actions taken in the name of self-defense. Florida SYG was, in this way, a bad law to begin with.

But what makes it worse is just how unnecessary the law is. The first words of the bill Bush signed into law in 2005 are almost verbatim with those of justifiable-use-of-force Florida laws going back to at least 1998.

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There’d have been no need for SYG in Florida, if not for someone, seen in the photos of Gov. Bush signing SYG into law. That someone, standing on his right side, is Marion P. Hammer, a top lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, the pro-gun organization that worked legislators hard to get the bill through the State Senate and onto Bush’s desk.

Bad as the law is, what’s more politically indefensible is the fact that it wasn’t needed, that it became law at the request of the NRA and its proxies, and its supporters in the legislature.

In the wake of Newtown and Oak Creek and Aurora, as the debate over gun-law reform accelerates in the national conversation, Jeb Bush will have to weigh in on this issue, sooner or later, and do so in a way that either demonstrates he has the centrist gravitas needed to be president, or shows him to be, in a critical concern to the American people, a servant of one very special interest.

And right now, on that issue, as an indicator of his character, as a measure of his integrity, Jeb Bush’s got some ‘splainin’ to do.

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AND SO it begins. The first wistful, wishful drop of a name. A book tour. TV appearances, and the first blush of a possible romance between Jeb Bush and the United States.

But any conservative hopes that Jeb Bush will be the one to come down from the mountain carrying tablets and healing the Great Breach have to confront the early reality. Besides the fact that we don’t know if he’s even fully interested in the White House, we don’t really know if Americans — not just conservatives, but the rest of us — are even remotely interested in him.

He doesn’t help himself with philosophical gymnastics on the issue of immigration reform. He doesn’t help himself with having signed a Florida law that’s had a hand in getting people killed — a law that the NRA pushed to have enacted. And he can’t save himself from a family name that’s yoked, unfairly or not, to the greatest foreign-policy debacle in the history of this nation.

Can Jeb Bush save the GOP? It’s not clear yet that Jeb Bush can even save himself.

Image credits: Bush: St. Petersburg Times. Immigration Wars cover: © 2013 Threshold Editions. Lugar: pubic domain. Poppy Bush in freefall: via The Boston Globe. Bush signs SYG law: Office of the Governor of Florida via Bloomberg. NRA logo: © 2013 National Rifle Association. Trayvon Martin: The Martin Family.

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