Jeb Bush: Return of the Compassionate Conservative?
by Jules Witcover
At a 25th anniversary reunion of old hands of the George H.W. Bush presidency at Texas A&M last weekend, the good will flowed in such abundance that the 89-year-old honoree remarked: "It's kinder and gentler all over the place."
The observation referred to the senior President Bush's pledge, in accepting the 1988 Republican nomination, that if elected he would conduct a smiley-face administration. And in personal style, he pretty much lived up to it.
But the most newsworthy item coming out of the party had to do with his son Jeb, the former governor of Florida. He has been in the spotlight lately as a potential 2016 presidential candidate, who if elected would be the third Bush in the Oval Office.
Jeb Bush said he would decide by the end of the year whether he could "run with a hopeful, optimistic message, hopefully with enough detail to give people a sense that it's not just idle words, and not get back into the vortex of the mud fight." That sounded like an echo of his old man's "kinder and gentler" credo.
But Bush then jumped into the burning issue of immigration reform that has divided his party. Its most vocal conservative wing rails against granting "amnesty" to undocumented aliens and a path of citizenship, or even permanent residency.
Bush offered that undocumented immigrants had "crossed the border because they had no other means to work, to be able to provide for their family. Yes, they broke the law," he said, "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. 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."
From the GOP far right wing, the dissent was deafening. Tea party darling Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas lamented that while "we're a nation of immigrants" and it should be celebrated, "rule of law" matters in prohibiting illegal entry. House Speaker John Boehner agreed and, according to Politico, Rep. Raul Labrador of Utah accused Bush of pandering.
Despite such an allegation, the Republican Party still has a major problem attracting the support of Hispanic voters. The weakness was sorely revealed in Mitt Romney's 2012 defeat, triggering much discussion about the GOP's need to court Latino and other ethnic voters looking to the 2016 presidential race.
Jeb Bush's remarks smacked of the 2000 theme of his brother George W., who preached a "compassionate conservatism" that had resonated with Texas Latinos in his earlier run for the governorship of the Lone Star State. But Dubya's slogan seemed somehow to get lost on his way to invading Iraq in 2003. His public image evolved instead as a wartime president waging a reckless, costly and divisive war of choice based on flawed intelligence.
So, after all, is Jeb Bush the real "compassionate conservative" in the family? Karl Rove, the Texas political strategist who was the architect of George W's 2000 election, said on Fox News that Jeb's latest remarks on immigration reform were "inartful." He warned that "this is going to be tossed back at him" if he runs in 2016.
Still, if the Republican Party seriously wants to shed its reputation for excluding Latinos and other minorities, it could do far worse than supporting the seasoned 61-year-old Floridian with the famous political family name. He has demonstrated neither the quirkiness of his likeable but intellectually unimpressive father, nor the cockiness and hair-trigger arrogance of his brother.
It may indeed be difficult for voters to see Jeb Bush other than through the prism of the long Bush family experience and record in politics. But as a popular and successful governor of a state that has been so critical in recent presidential elections, he warrants a hard look should he decide to offer himself as his own man.
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