The bigger question — the known unknown — is how Bush, once a darling of conservatives, would be received by the conservative base, the ideological strict constructionists of the party, the conservatives whose grassroots adherents could be either his salvation or his worst nightmare.
That hasn’t stopped some Republican pragmatists to start advancing his name. And it hasn’t stopped Bush himself from making, on Sunday, a statement of principle on the U.S. immigration crisis that goes against conservative orthodoxy — and raises the question of nothing less than what the Republican Party is going to be in 2016.
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In 2008, after two terms as governor, Bush could probably have gotten nominated by acclimation before the primaries began. Even more so in 2012. But between 2008 and 2012, the Republican Party — consumed with an irrational hatred of a Democratic president who’s embarrassed the GOP by letting the GOP embarrass itself — ushered in the Tea Party, a Frankenstein offshoot that would tolerate no moderates, no compromisers, no wanderers from the tribe.
For a while, the Tea Party virus enlivened the host. Right up until the virus began to take over the host. That battle of the antibodies is what’s going on in the Republican Party right now.
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AND SO, some in the Republican hierarchy have decided that Jeb Bush could do no harm. On March 29, Philip Rucker and Robert Costa of the Washington Post reported: “Many of the Republican Party’s most powerful insiders and financiers have begun a behind-the-scenes campaign to draft former Florida governor Jeb Bush into the 2016 presidential race, courting him and his intimates and starting talks on fundraising strategy. ...
“Many if not most of 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s major donors are reaching out to Bush and his confidants with phone calls, e-mails and invitations to meet, according to interviews with 30 senior Republicans. One bundler estimated that the ‘vast majority’ of Romney’s top 100 donors would back Bush in a competitive nomination fight.”
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But hold up. That was deep last week. On Sunday, speaking at an event marking the 25th anniversary of the presidency of his father, George H. W. Bush, Jeb Bush put distance between himself and conservative holy writ on the thorny matter of immigration, and did it in language that was anodyne, humanistic and realistic.
“There are means by which we can control our border better than we have. And there should be penalties for breaking the law,” he said.
“But the way I look at this -- and I'm going to say this, and it'll be on tape and so be it. The way I look at this is someone who comes to our country because they couldn’t come legally, they come to our country because their families -- the dad who loved their children -- was worried that their children didn’t have food on the table. And they wanted to make sure their family was intact, and they crossed the border because they had no other means to work to be able to provide for their family.
“Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family. I honestly think that that is a different kind of crime that there should be a price paid, but it shouldn’t rile people up that people are actually coming to this country to provide for their families.”
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THAT’S NOT the first time he’s wandered off the grounds of the estate. In June 2012, interviewed at a breakfast event with Bloomberg View, Bush said that former Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and his father, George H. W. Bush would “have had a hard time” finding support in today’s Republican Party.
Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times reported “During the discussion at Bloomberg View, Mr. Bush implored his party: “Don’t just talk about Hispanics and say immediately ‘we must have controlled borders.’ Change the tone would be the first thing. Second, on immigration, I think we need to have a broader approach.”
Rutenberg reported that Bush’s friends “say it is the party’s shift away from the sort of comprehensive immigration overhaul [former president George W.] Bush had championed during his presidency that particularly pains the Bushes, who, for all of their differences, believe the system should be more humane for hardworking and law-abiding Hispanic families — whom the Republican Party must court to assure its future success.”
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It’s that rigidity, that kind of thinking that Jeb Bush is up against. The ardent passions of the hardcore conservative right have been historically consistent in opposing anything less than a punitive approach to the people in the immigration crisis. For them, Jeb Bush ... complicates things.
They know that when he looks at crossing the border illegally as “an act of love, an act of commitment to your family,” he’s tapped into the conservative reflex supporting family values — and he calls the question of how committed Republicans are to those family values in the realer world. The wider world that doesn’t look like most of them.
So the knives long and short are out already. Bowmanman, a Washington Post reader, commented: “Out of an act of love, I will vote for anyone of either party who runs against Jeb Bush.”
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WILLIAM KRISTOL, editor of the Pantone-red conservative Weekly Standard told The Times that “it’d be a little odd to nominate someone who was last in office in 2006, who hasn’t been politically involved at all, in any significant way, in the Obama years.”
Kristol was being downright genteel about it. In a Monday column titled “Jeb’s Gibberish,” in the equally Pantone-red National Review Online, Mark Krikorian wrote: “When Jeb excuses illegal immigration ‘because they couldn’t come legally,’ he’s betraying his view that anyone in the world who wants to come here must be permitted to do so. ...
“And so, Jeb Bush’s immigration policy in a single sentence: Any limit on immigration is an act of hate.”
In the April 2 Washington Post, George Will noted: “the nomination fight would be especially bruising because Bush has been admirably forthright, but certainly impolitic, about two divisive issues — immigration and the Common Core national education standards for grades K through 12.”
And Bush may well have other problems outside the party. A March 6 Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 50 percent of registered voters “definitely would not” vote for him in a general election.
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Whatever it is, it’s the kind of early warning that’s already giving him pause. Rucker and Costa of The Post report: “People close to him said a major concern about running is navigating today’s messy spectacle of Twitter wars and super PAC attacks. In January, Bush said, “The decision will be based on ‘Can I do it joyfully,’ because I think we need to have candidates lift our spirits.”
If Bush means that, he’d better not get in the race. “Joyfully”? That may not be possible if they have to draft you to get you to run. And there’ve been more than a few signals — despite recent speeches and appearances, despite emails with former advisers and campaigning for other Republicans — that, you know what, he might not run in 2016. The fire may be turned up in everyone’s belly but his own.
His contemplation has been a predictable trait. In mid-2006, Bush was approached with a serious offer to be named the commissioner of the National Football League — an offer that would, from all indications, have dovetailed pretty closely with the end of his second term as governor. After refusing to even talk about it until his term ended, Bush watched the football being handed off to Roger Goodell.
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IN 2008 BUSH flirted briefly with making a run for the Senate seat to be vacated by the retiring Mel Martinez in 2010. Fast forward to 2009 and the heir apparent has a change of mind and heart, deciding instead to back Marco Rubio in his ultimately successful Senate bid.
Everyone’s waiting on tenterhooks, and that may be the problem. In the absence of anything definitive from the man himself, the rhetorical vacuum is being filled with speculations that are just short of an anointing. GOP poobah Fred Malek, who stays in touch with Bush, told The Post that “Jeb has the capacity to bring the party together.” And last year, John Avlon gushed in The Daily Beast that “Jeb is uniquely positioned to help resolve, or at least heal, the emerging GOP civil war.”
And it may be precisely talk like that — this summoning of a savior — that Jeb Bush might well and intelligently want nothing to do with. The Great Uniter? Healer-in-Chief? Hell, who in his right mind wants to take on a no-win gig like that?
But maybe he will. Sally Bradshaw, his longtime political counselor in Florida, told The Post that Bush “is not in the middle of a formal process. He is methodical, he is thoughtful, and he’ll make a decision by the end of the year or the first quarter of next year.”
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But whenever he decides to decide, Jeb Bush faces a challenge distilled in comments made to The Times by Mark DeMoss, a former Romney adviser. “I think [Bush] is a talented, credible, thinking leader,” DeMoss said. “The question is, how much appetite is there in the Republican Party and in the general electorate for that?”
But the general electorate’s not the issue. There’s a deeper, accidental revelation in the other part of DeMoss’ hypothetical inquiry. The question itself — the very fact that DeMoss poses the choice of a “credible, thinking leader” as a dilemma for the Republican Party — is exactly the problem. And that’s not a problem Jeb Bush can fix by himself.
Some in the Republican Party are ready for Jeb Bush as he is, pragmatic noises and all. Others have rejected him outright as an outlier, a quasi-RINO, an apostate. But given the current trifurcated state of the GOP, the question is, which is the bigger apostate: the former governor and possible future candidate who bolts from some of the rigidities of his party, or the party that’s slowly drifting away from itself?
Image credits: Bush top: Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press. Bush lower: St. Petersburg Times. Kristol: Fox News.