Here Comes Jeb

Can another Republican presidential candidate named Bush – George W.’s younger brother Jeb – actually make it to the White House in 2012?  It hardly seems possible given the ugly tarnishing of the Bush “brand” that occurred during Dubya’s own corrupt and bellicose presidency, which historians have ranked among the country’s five worst.  It’s a tarnishing that President Obama and the Democrats have done their best to keep fresh in the minds of the American public even though they’ve both managed, in one form or another, to continue so many of those same Bush policies in tact – on terrorism and foreign intervention, especially.

And Bush’s former vice president Dick Cheney, arguably one of the despised men in US politics, and one of the reasons the Bush presidency is considered such an abject moral failure, has publicly endorsed the idea of a Jeb Bush presidency.  You wouldn’t think that would help matters much.

But look around, and the signs of a Bush “renaissance” – or perhaps, “rehabilitation,” is the better word – are everywhere.  Dubya, who’s largely remained out of the limelight since his ignominious departure from office – in part, not to damage GOP prospects in 2010 – has recently gone on a book tour of sorts to promote his presidential memoir, Decision Points.  While the mainstream media has largely ignored the book, conservatives haven’t, and neither has the American public; in fact, its still selling briskly, having recently passed the 1 million mark.  In Florida, Bush has appeared at speaking events with brother Jeb dutifully at his side, confirming an ominous sense of presidential “torch-passing” that appears to be well underway.

And then there’s Jeb Bush’s own calculated maneuvering.    Having formerly doused speculation in July that he’d run for the White House in 2012, he’s suddenly making significant personal appearances, and some intriguing public statements, of his own.

They include:

* An announcement in late November that he’s teaming up with former Bush Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez to form a national Republican Hispanic Leadership Council (HLC) to woo Latinos away from the Democratic party. The group is supported by the American Action Forum (AAF), one of a constellation of five new GOP organizations created and managed by the chief architect of the Dubya presidency, Karl Rove, to promote the party’s prospects in 2012 and beyond.

* Appearances and vocal support on behalf of leading Senate Tea Party candidates, including Rand Paul and Marco Rubio.  In Florida’s 2010 Senate race, Jeb vocally backed Rubio over Charlie Crist, whom Bush himself had defeated in the Florida primary for governor in 2002. Rubio won 55% of the state’s Hispanic vote is considered critical to the party’s prospects for repositioning the GOP with Latinos.

* A refusal by Jeb to join in the Bush family criticism of Sarah Palin, arguably, along with Rove, and several others, now one of the most important power brokers in the GOP.  Palin criticized “Republican Blue Bloods” trying to dictate the party’s political future after Barbara Bush, wife of former president George Herbert Walker Bush, and Jeb’s mother, said publicly that Palin should “stay in Alaska” and forget about the presidency.  Bush’s repeated “no comments” to the media suggest an unwillingness to get drawn into a controversy that could damage his own future prospects if he expects to mobilize Tea Partiers behind his candidacy.

* Recent vocal criticism of the Democrats for “playing politics with immigration” by trying to pass the Dream Act during the current lame duck session of Congress.  Bush also made a point of challenging President Obama to travel to the US-Mexico border to see the illegal immigration problem for himself, an  early sign, perhaps, of Bush’s desire to draw a public contrast between the President and himself.  Bush is expected to make a major address on immigration reform at the AAF-HLC’s kick-off event in Coral Gables, FL in mid-January.

Of course, like nearly every other top GOP presidential prospect, Bush has yet to announce formally that he’ll run for the presidency in 2012. And as a political moderate – indeed, a centrist practically, on most issues – he’s largely just testing the waters at this point.  But those around him, like Rove, are doing far more.  They see a huge new opening for the GOP and are disenchanted with the current crop of Republican candidates, especially Palin and Mike Huckabee, whom they fear will consign the party to the political wilderness at a time when it should be reclaiming the prairie.

What does Bush have to offer?  His credibility with Latinos, for one.  Rove helped design and manage Dubya’s high-profile diplomacy with then-Mexican President Vicente Fow within days of taking office in 2001, which was designed to set the stage for immigration reform, and a broad GOP outreach campaign to Hispanics.  9/11 largely killed this initiative during Dubya’s first term, but Bush still named top Hispanics to his candidate and kept up a steady stream of positive rhetoric, including his widely repeated statement that “family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande.”

And then, to the chagrin of Bush and Rove, the GOP far-right, inflamed with “nativism,” seized the initiative on immigration, and began attacking Bush’s carefully worked out compromise with the Democrats on legalization as an unconscionable “amnesty.”   Thus, began the slow but steady erosion of the GOP’s standing with Hispanic swing voters, which culminated in Obama’s victory in 2008, and a decline in Hispanic support for the GOP from the record 44% for Bush in 2004, to a mere 31% for John McCain.

Of all the GOP’s future prospects, Jeb’s clearly the best positioned to woo some of these disaffected Latinos back – and even more, to start building a larger and more enduring base among America’s largest and fastest-growing ethnic group, and now 10% of the national electorate – and counting.  Bush himself speaks fluent Spanish, owing to his youthful travels and stays in Mexico, during one of which he married his wife, Columba, who is of Mexican descent.  And like Dubya, and in sharp contrast to GOP nativists, Bush would like to steer a middle way between an outright embrace of “amnesty” and a de facto policy of mass deportation, a position that aligns with most public opinion polls, and indeed, is the positon of a slim majority of Republican voters also.

That Jeb Bush is popular with Latinos in a way that few Republicans ever have been is indisuptable.  He won 55% of the Latino vote during his re-election, the first time a Republican has served two consecutive terms as Florida governor.   And that wasn’t just 55% of Cuban-Americans, who have long dominated Florida’s Latino community and long voted GOP..  Jeb actually won 55% of the Latino vote across the board, including Central and South Americans and Puerto Ricans, which not even Marco Rubio was able to accomplish this November.  Yes, that’s how popular ? and how much of a threat ? Jeb potentially is.

And then there’s Bush’s enthusiastic championing of education reform, which has broad bipartisan appeal, and which would place him squarely in the political center with independent White voters, and just about everybody else.  His so-called  “A+ Plan” mandated standardized testing in Florida’s public schools, eliminated social promotion, and established a system of funding public schools based on a statewide grading system using the so-called FCAT test. Bush has also been a proponent of school vouchers and charter schools, especially in areas of the state with failing public schools, although, in fact, very few Florida schools have received failing grades from the state to date.

That accomplishment, plus his steadfast refusal to raise taxes to pay for reform, are major feathers in Bush’s cap, and are sure to feature prominently in any future presidential bid.

On foreign policy, Jeb’s profile is that of a neophyte – much like Dubya prior to 2000 -but one firmly loyal to neoconservativism.  In 1997, just before his successful run for governor, Bush was one of more than two dozen prominent political figures to sign the founding statement of principles of the, “Project for a New  American Century,” which openly promotes a “Reaganite” vision of “American global leadership,” including a strong military and slavish loyalty to Israel. Among PNAC’s 25 charter signatories were several people who would later become senior members of his brother’s administration, including Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, and Elliot Abrams.

Bush hasn’t been especially visible on foreign and defense issues but given his influential circle of associations, that probably won’t hurt him with fellow Republicans, or leave him open to charges from Dems that he’s too inexperienced to be commander in chief.  Moreover, unlike other rising GOP stars, Bush has developed serious credibility won global economic issues thanks to the extensive trade missions he conducted to Mexico, Brazil, Israel, Chile and Argentina, among other locales, during his two terms in office.

And lastly, there’s the fact that Bush, unlike a number of other prominent Republican moderates is decidedly “pro-life.”  That may have hurt him in his first run for the governorship in 1998, when Lawton Chiles narrowly beat him in the GOP primary, thanks in part to disaffection, even among some GOP women, with his harsh anti-abortion stance.  But that was before Bush took office. His subsequent record has largely erased perceptions that he’s an unremitting social conservative.   Up for re-election, he’s often softened his pro-life views, and he became the first Florida governor ever to name a woman as lieutenant governor, demonstrating his increasingly nuanced approach to “identity” politics. GOP social conservatives, including Palin and Huckabee, might ultimately find Bush an attractive alternative to Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, two others being mentioned as GOP presidential timber, but who, unlike Bush, have equivocated on abortion issues in the past.

So what’s not to like?  The name, of course.  But don’t expect that to last.  A CNN poll conducted in October found that Americans viewed Obama as a better president than George Bush by just a two-point margin, 47%-45%. It was a 23-point margin in October 2009.  Americans, it appears, are awfully quick to forgive – and forget.  Or perhaps they aren’t prepared to keep falling for the argument that Obama’s persistent leadership failures, two years in, are still just the unfortunate legacy of his predecessor.  And let’s face it, Americans also find political dynasties – the Kennedys, the Clintons, and now the Bushes – strangely compelling.  By 2012, with the national economy still likely shipwrecked, and the country screaming less for change than for stablity and hopeful reassurance, the perverse continuity of Bush III could prove compelling indeed.

STEWART J. LAWRENCE is a Washington, DC-based an immigration policy specialist.  He can be reached at




Stewart Lawrence is a long-time Washington, DC-based policy consultant.  He can be reached at