Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who has remained on the sidelines since his older brother left the White House with dismal ratings four years ago, has jumped back into the political fray this week with a new book, wall-to-wall television interviews and a round of public speaking engagements.
His appearances mark a change in approach for Bush, 60, who has operated as more of a Republican elder statesman since leaving Tallahassee in 2007 but is now clearly considering a run for the White House.
In interview after interview this week, Bush, who had long dismissed the suggestion of a presidential run, spoke openly about his thinking on the matter, and his longtime political adviser, Sally Bradshaw, said Tuesday in an interview that Bush “will seriously think about it.”
“This is a guy who has big ideas and cares deeply about the future of the party and hopes to play a role in the rebirth of the party, but at what level I don’t think he knows,” Bradshaw said.
Bush, whose name last appeared on a ballot more than a decade ago, learned the difficulties Tuesday of navigating the fast-changing fault lines of the modern-day Republican Party.
Almost as soon as he unveiled his book “Immigration Wars” — which proposes giving legal status to illegal immigrants but requiring them to return home before pursuing citizenship — Bush was criticized by Republicans who questioned his motives and timing.
He has long favored giving illegal immigrants a chance to gain citizenship and has frequently voiced concern that Republicans who expressed a more restrictive view were alienating Hispanic voters. The position he lays out in his book puts him more in line with his party’s base — the kind of thing a potential presidential contender would be mindful of.
The shift stunned even Bush’s closest allies and suddenly put the former governor out of step with a growing number of Republicans, including a fellow Miamian, Sen. Marco Rubio, who have been trying to push the GOP toward a citizenship plan.
“This proposal caught me off guard, and it undercuts what we’re trying to do,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a member of a bipartisan working group on immigration.
Bush on Tuesday tried to refute the suggestion that he had flip-flopped. He and his aides argued that he wrote the book last year after the bitter GOP presidential primary, in which eventual nominee Mitt Romney voiced support for “self-deportation,” and that Bush was looking for a politically practical middle ground.
“We wrote this book last year, not this year, and we proposed a path to legalization, so anybody that had come illegally would have immediately a path to legalization,” Bush said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” But he added moments later: “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 illegally, I’m for it. I don’t have a problem with that.”
Republican strategist Ana Navarro said Bush was a victim of timing. As his book was working through the slow process of publication, Republicans moved quickly to respond to President Obama’s overwhelming victory in November among Hispanics.
“The partisan divide got a lot narrower, a lot faster, than Jeb anticipated,” Navarro said.
Still, the appearance that Bush was maneuvering on a key policy prompted some in the party to reassess his intentions.
“Until [Monday] I didn’t think he was going to run” for president, said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. “If you ask me why he did it, I’d say he’s thinking of running and he wants to make sure he can appeal to a broader base in the party.”
Bush has an array of advantages should he run. He has instant access to his family’s vast fundraising network, he is well-liked by evangelicals and fiscal conservatives, and as a fluent Spanish-speaker whose wife is Mexican American, he could connect with Hispanic voters.
But as the scion of a political dynasty, he also carries the considerable baggage of his family. His father, George H.W. Bush, was a one-term president who angered conservatives by breaking his “no new taxes” pledge. And his brother George W. Bush alienated many in the party by supporting spending increases and left office as a deeply unpopular president.
In his interviews, Jeb Bush has touched on much more than immigration. He has weighed in on the budget battles in Washington, the role of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) — “I love Christie,” he said repeatedly — and strategies for reworking schools, long one of his cherished issues.
He drew a sharp critique from anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, who was irritated when Bush told NBC’s “Today” show Monday that he wouldn’t rule out new revenue as part of a budget deal “if the president is sincere about dealing with our structural problems.” Republicans in Congress have said revenue is off the table, and Norquist likened Bush’s comments to “throwing marbles at the feet” of GOP lawmakers.
“If you’re trying to introduce yourself to the modern Republican Party outside of Florida, probably best not to start with a discussion about how much you could be talked into a tax increase,” Norquist said. “People are looking for someone who’s tough, and you’re saying, ‘I’d fold.’ ”
Most notable in Bush’s appearances this week, though, has been his willingness to engage on the 2016 question.
Since last year’s election, Bush and some in his inner circle have been fielding calls from Republicans across the country encouraging him to run. He also received such calls before the 2008 and 2012 elections, but in both cases, he quickly ruled out a campaign.
Friends cited a number of reasons in the past for his reluctance, including concerns that the country might not be eager for another Bush and that his wife, Columba, who has shied from the spotlight, was not interested in the demands of a national campaign.
But Bush told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd in one interview that he now feels more strongly positioned. “I’m not saying yes. I’m just not saying no,” he said, appearing on “The Daily Rundown.” “I’ve accomplished some things in my life that allow me now to, to have that kind of discretion, to be able to think about it.”
People close to him say Bush’s view on the matter has definitely changed.
“In the past, Governor Bush has consistently dismissed any notion of running for president,” said Justin Sayfie, a former Bush aide and Republican fundraiser. “In recent days, he’s left that door completely wide open.”
Bush confidants say his book rollout was not intended to be political. He may run for president, but his intentions this week have been focused on helping solve the immigration puzzle. No campaign exists or is even in the works.
Quipped Bradshaw, Bush’s longtime adviser: “Obviously there’s not a great amount of coordination, as evidenced by the last couple of days.”
Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.
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