“We just didn’t have the time and influence to bring the party along,” Nicolle Wallace, Bush’s former communications director, said in an interview Wednesday.
Bush’s approval ratings have risen since leaving office — from 35 percent in 2009 to 49 percent this spring — as he settles into a role as an elder statesman. Several Republican lawmakers acknowledged this week that Bush’s experience in the immigration debate and ability to attract Hispanic support gives him special credibility on the issue.
But some said privately that they wish Bush had remained more active in GOP politics, as a fundraiser or campaign surrogate, which might have given him more clout on policy issues.
“I don’t think it hurts to have him coming out, but I’m not so sure how much it helps,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who has not been in touch with Bush since 2008.
Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) said he wouldn’t be too concerned with the former president’s comments on immigration. But he added that “as a Republican who drew a high percentage of the Hispanic vote, there’s some lessons to be learned, and I think people would be interested in his point of view.”
One former Bush administration official who remains involved in the immigration policy debate on Capitol Hill said the former president “probably will not move the needle, other than the way in which he talks about it reminds people about why the issue is important and why there needs to be progress.”
Former Bush advisers said his position on immigration is a principled stance gained from his experience as a border governor in Texas from 1995 to 2000.
Wallace said the fact that her former boss has not spoken out on any other legislation since leaving office shows how passionate he is about immigration reform. She pointed to his Oval Office address to the country in May 2006.
“We are a nation of laws, and we must enforce our laws. We are also a nation of immigrants, and we must uphold that tradition, which has strengthened our country in so many ways,” Bush said at the time. “These are not contradictory goals.”
Wallace acknowledged that Bush is unlikely, by himself, to advance the cause in the Republican House. In recent weeks, pushback from constituents and conservative talk-radio hosts has made many House Republicans nervous about embracing a sweeping reform bill.
Former Bush administration Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who now heads a political action committee called Republicans for Immigration Reform, said Bush’s recent statements should be “a very powerful reminder to people that here is a Republican president who understands the importance of immigration.”
He added, “Surely the president’s voice has sway throughout the country and hopefully will make members of the House think twice about what they’re going to do.”