AUSTIN (USA TODAY) -- Jeb Bush will not be ignored.
He is releasing a
provocative book on immigration this week, addressing conservative
leaders next week and is brutally outspoken in an interview with USA
TODAY about the self-inflicted wounds he thinks cost Republicans a
winnable presidential race in 2012. In the process, he says, the GOP
managed to sour its standing with fast-growing demographic groups that
should be natural allies.
The former two-term governor of Florida -
the son of one president and the brother of another - argues
Republicans will "doom" their national electoral prospects for the
future unless they forge a new approach to immigration and a more open
attitude toward immigrants. At the moment, Republicans project an angry
tone "that says, 'I'd love to have your vote but you can't be on my
team,'" he says. "Man, just close your eyes and listen. There is not a
lot of positive messaging going on."
is even more critical, almost contemptuous, of President Obama on the
immigration issue, calling the administration's move last week to
release some illegal immigrants from detention because of automatic
budget cuts "deplorable" and describing his record on the issue as
cynical and partisan.
"Leaders lead, they don't divide; they don't
create a climate that is poisonous," he says. "And the president is a
great campaigner. Fantastic campaigner. Great. OK, we've got that
established, that fact. But the campaign is over, and he's still in
So Bush must be preparing to run for president in 2016, right?
even going to think about it until next year, he insists, then groans
when asked why, in that case, he signed up to deliver a featured address
at the high-profile Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC)
next week outside Washington.
"That's a good question," he says,
shooting an exaggerated glare in the direction of some aides. "It's
because a lot of people urged me to do it." He downplays expectations
for the speech - "I'm going to be exhausted" - and praises other
Republicans who are considering presidential runs, including fellow
Floridian Sen. Marco Rubio.
But Bush, 60, also does nothing to
deny his own presidential ambitions. He sat out last year's contest
despite the urging of those who saw him as the only figure who could
jump in late, unite the party and effectively challenge Obama. Instead,
he watched Mitt Romney lose.
Could he have won? "Absolutely," Bush says. "I admire Mitt Romney . . . but he got himself in a box on this issue."
issue" refers to immigration, including Republican demands for tougher
border security and Romney's inartful suggestion of "self-deportation"
by illegal immigrants living in the United States. In the end, Obama
carried Hispanic and Asian-American voters by more than 3-1.
the election, the political imperative in both parties to act on
immigration prompted Bush and co-author Clint Bolick to speed up
publication of Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution by
two months so it might help shape the debate on Capitol Hill. In the
274-page book, they outline a prescription on immigration that is likely
to raise some hackles on both sides.
At odds with many
conservatives, they support establishing a path to legal status for
undocumented immigrants now in the U.S. without setting preconditions on
improvements in border security. At odds with many liberals, that path
to legal status wouldn't include citizenship for those who arrived in
the United States as adults.
Their proposal would limit the family
preference system that now allows the brothers, sisters and parents of
legal residents to emigrate. Instead, they would expand visas available
to entrepreneurs, to high-skilled workers with advanced math and science
degrees, and to low-skilled workers needed to fill agricultural and
other jobs. And they would give states the power to step up their own
enforcement of federal immigration laws and to curtail social services
for illegal immigrants - an idea that is sure to spark controversy.
book notes that federal law requires hospital emergency rooms to
provide medical care to everyone and proposes that states be allowed to
"define which services are covered" for illegal immigrants and those who
don't yet have permanent legal residency. Bolicksays that step could
save the government money and reduce public resentment of illegal
immigrants. "I'm not prepared to say we should change that law," Bush
says. "I think we ought to have a conversation about that."
plan is a more extensive overhaul of immigration law than the Obama
administration's draft proposal that leaked last month and a more
conservative blueprint than the working principles outlined by the
bipartisan group of eight senators now trying to negotiate a bill. Bush
argues it's also more likely to get through the Republican-controlled
"That could create a dialogue to find some middle ground that would get us to where we need to be," he says.
'A huge Marco fan'
Bush may be determined to wait until next year to focus on a possible presidential run, but Rubio already is on the move.
41, a member of that bipartisan Senate group on immigration, delivered
the official Republican response to the president's State of the Union
Address in January. He's just back from a trip to the Mideast that
burnished his foreign policy credentials. At the end of last year, he
just happened to keynote an event in Iowa, site of the opening
Rubio's rising profile has put a bit of
pressure on Bush to decide his own intentions, or at least take some
steps (CPAC, anyone?) to make sure the door doesn't close on him.
2009, after Florida Sen. Mel Martinez announced he wouldn't run for a
second term, Rubio went to Bush's law office in Miami to discuss the
race for an hour. "If he were to run, no one would challenge him in the
primary - certainly not me," Rubio explained in his book An American Son,
published last year. Only when Bush called to say he had decided
against seeking the seat did Rubio seriously weigh getting in.
No such conversation has taken place between the two men about the presidential race, Bush says.
haven't talked about 2016," Bush says. "But I'm a huge Marco fan and
I'm inspired by him and I think he's doing a great job as a senator, and
we're friends. That's the level of our relationship. I've always been a
fan of him from when he was, like, 26 years old and a city councilman
in West Miami. I knew he had a gift."
So another question: How
many Republicans who hail from Miami-Dade County and share key advisers,
close ties to the Hispanic community and a focus on immigration policy
can run for president at the same time?
Bush laughs. "I'll let the
pundits salivate over that," he replies. "It's for my own sanity and
for good reasons that I don't think about it. I don't speculate about
it. I don't dream about it. I can shut that off. I've got enough things
going on in my life, trust me."
Mutual friends predict Bush and
Rubio won't find themselves facing off in the Republican primaries.
"Being a friend of both, I cannot see a scenario where they both would
run," says Ana Navarro, a GOP strategist who worked on immigration
policy for Bush in the statehouse. "The friendship and mutual respect
between them is real, and there's just so much overlap in friends, in
Bush says he isn't driven by presidential fever, by a
burning desire to claim the top job in politics. "There's a lot of
obsession about people's personal ambitions," he says. "I think my
motivation really relates to broader issues. ... I want my voice to have
purpose. If I can help create an environment where the principles that I
believe in can be implemented - to me, that's fulfilling."
is the grown-up in the room," says Sally Bradshaw, a veteran in Florida
Republican politics who served as Bush's chief of staff as governor. "He
has a perspective and an ability to sell big ideas."
On this day,
he is in the Texas state Capitol on behalf of the Foundation for
Excellence in Education, a group he formed four years ago to encourage
other states to adopt the education policies he implemented in Florida.
As he waits in a hallway, Gov. Rick Perry (yet another potential 2016
contender) emerges from an elevator. "How you doing?" Bush asks. "Best
you ever saw," Perry booms.
Perry extolls what he tells Bush is
the most conservative Texas legislature in nearly three decades. "Twenty
senators over here with an 'R' by their name," he brags. Nineteen, an
aide murmurs. "Nineteen? Should be 20," the governor says, undeterred.
the education reform world, the more conservative you are doesn't mean
you'll be on the side of change," Bush demurs, calling it an issue that
crosses party lines. He meets with the governor, sits down with some
state legislators, then addresses the Senate education committee. Bush
has brought a PowerPoint presentation about Florida education policies
As he heads out of the Capitol, Bush spots the official
portrait of his older brother, George W. Bush, twice elected governor
before he was became president. "There he is," Bush declares, pausing
momentarily as he makes an exaggerated ta-da gesture oddly reminiscent of his brother.
A passer-by shouts, "How's your dad?" Former president George H.W.
Bush was released from a Houston hospital in January after being treated
for more than a month for bronchitis. "Better," he replies, heading
down stairs and out the door.
Later, Bush says his father has
become "frail" at age 88. "He's an old guy, is the best way to describe
him," he says. "But he's in relatively good health."
That father-son talk
6'4", Jeb Bush is taller than his brother and father. He is big and
blunt. If George W. bears an eerie resemblance to their father, Jeb is a
bit more inclined to favor their mother. He is more reserved and more
cerebral than his brother, but they share the same vocal inflections and
competitive instincts. Both first ran for governor in 1994, when George
W. won in Texas and Jeb lost in Florida, only to run again successfully
four years later.
Every winning national Republican ticket in
more than three decades has had a Bush on it, running as president or
vice president. If Jeb were also to win the White House, the Bushes
would be the first family ever to count three presidents among their
ranks. What's more, Jeb's son George P. Bush, 36, is planning to run for
statewide office in Texas next year, probably for land commissioner.
His other son, Jeb Jr., 29, is weighing a campaign in Florida.
has been encouraged to consider running for Congress," Jeb Bush says.
But his son feels "some trepidation" about having a father-son talk
about it, he says. "I think he knows what I'll tell him. I'll tell him
what my dad told me, which was: What happens if you win?"
national politics, the Bush name looms as both blessing and curse for
Jeb Bush. The family's political credentials and connections give him
ready access to a significant fundraising network. But for some
skeptical conservatives, he is also shadowed by his father's decision to
break his no-new-taxes pledge and his brother's expansion of the
federal government and the budget deficit.
"If Jeb Bush runs, he's
not going to be the conservative candidate in the primaries," says
Terry Jeffrey, a conservative columnist and editor of the CNSNews.com,
likening Bush to Romney in 2012. "He's going to be the establishment
candidate, and his viability will depend on how many conservatives are
splitting the vote in the early caucuses and primaries."
For some Democrats, the Bush name revives memories of the disputed
2000 election that put George W. Bush in the White House and of the
divisive war in Iraq.
In a Quinnipiac University survey released
last month, close to half of registered voters said they didn't know
enough about Jeb Bush to have an opinion, but partisans on both sides
were more likely to have definite views.
Republicans by 46%-7% had a favorable impression of Jeb Bush. Democrats by 50%-11% had an unfavorable one.
Alienating 'natural allies'
year, Bush was in Phoenix to speak at a fundraiser on behalf of Save
Our Secret Ballot, an advocacy group that encourages states to pass
constitutional amendments that require a secret ballot when workers vote
on whether to be represented by a union. "In the very first question,
Jeb was asked how we could stop the hordes of people pouring over our
southern border and committing crimes and going on welfare, and his
response was to rephrase the question," Bolick recalls. "He said, 'How
can the Republican Party avoid committing suicide by continuing to
alienate people who ought to be our natural allies?'"
prominent conservative lawyer affiliated with the Goldwater Institute in
Phoenix, approached Bush after the speech and proposed that they write a
book together outlining an immigration overhaul.
the book to his granddaughter, Georgia, as the epitome of America's
immigrant heritage. The toddler's father, Jeb Jr., has an American
father and Mexican-born mother, Columba. Georgia's mother, Sandra, is a
Canadian citizen of Iraqi descent.
Iraqi-Canadian-Mexican-Texan-American," Bush says of his granddaughter.
"She's a quadra-hyphenated American. And 20 years from now, when she
fills out the Census form, and asked what her ethnicity is, she'll say,
'Not applicable.'" He pulls out his smartphone to show off a photograph
of the little girl, grinning.