For those who saw Jeb Bush’s clumsy rollout of his new immigration book as a tipoff that he had forfeited his political instincts, not to mention his principles: not so fast.
The former Florida governor delivered arguably the signature speech of this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference and one of the strongest doses of tough love in the Republican Party’s postelection recovery period. It stretched out two arms toward a rapidly diversifying electorate and a global economy, dipped into the weeds of public policy on immigration and education, and envisioned his party’s road back to the White House.
Even if Bush rules out a presidential bid in 2016, as his closest allies suspect, the speech signals that he will continue to be a force in domestic policy debates and Republican politics.
“I’m here to tell you there is no us or them,” Bush said, repositioning himself as truth-teller after a week of fending off accusations that he had flip-flopped on immigration. “The face of the Republican Party needs to be the face of every American, and we need to be the party of inclusion and acceptance. It's our heritage and it's our future and we need to couch our efforts in those terms.”
When most Republicans talk about expanding the “tent” these days, they usually mean the fast-growing Hispanic community, which widely repudiated Republican nominee Mitt Romney in the 2012 election. The chase for Hispanic votes by both political parties, at its most crass, verges on political pandering. But Bush talked not just about race and ethnicity and but also about income inequality, lifting his speech above the typical Republican appeals and far beyond the limited scope of Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, which seemed to be talking only to a privileged few.
“It is not a validation of our conservative principles if we can only point to the increasingly rare individual who overcomes adversity and succeeds in America,” Bush said. “Here’s reality: if you’re fortunate enough to count yourself among the privileged, much of the rest of the nation is drowning. In our country today, if you’re born poor, if your parents didn’t go to college, if you don’t know your father, if English isn’t spoken at your home, then the odds are stacked against you.”
These are not words typically spoken by Republican political figures.
The bold speech followed a week in which Bush was widely criticized upon the release of his new book, Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution. In the book, Bush opposes -- contrary to his previous statements -- allowing the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. to earn citizenship. Instead, the book recommends awarding only legal status, raising the embarrassing specter of a flip-flop by the one-time champion of immigration reform who is viewed as a party statesman.
Bush’s excuse was that he had written the book during the 2012 campaign, when the Republican Party’s standard-bearer, Romney, opposed citizenship even for young people brought here illegally by their parents and was recommending “self-deportation.” Bush was apparently trying to crack the window for conservative Republicans; instead he appeared to be undermining the current talks on Capitol Hill, which include the possibility of citizenship.
In his speech Friday, Bush didn’t revisit the public-relations disaster but described immigration not as a problem but as an opportunity. “As a nation, if we get immigration right, and I hope and pray that’s the case this year, we’re going to stay young.... America remains younger than all industrialized nations.”
Ironically, Bush gave part of the speech that his former protégé, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, could have given the day before. Rubio, who is Cuban-American, is leading immigration-reform talks on Capitol Hill but chose not to mention the issue during his CPAC speech.
A staunch social conservative as governor, Bush didn’t pick up the torch for climate change or gay marriage, as some of his fellow Republicans are doing, but he did urge the party to pull back from its combative positions on social issues.
“Too often we’re associated with being “anti” everything,” he said. “Way too many people believe Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker…and the list goes on and on and on. Many voters are simply unwilling to choose our candidates even though they are our beliefs because those voters feel unloved, unwanted and unwelcome in our party.”
He continued, “This means that we must move beyond the divisive and extraneous issues that currently define the public debate.”
And what’s a good political speech without a heavy splash of American optimism? Bush lambasted runaway federal spending and inadequate public schools but promised a better future.
“Tonight, as surely as you sit here, the fundamentals are aligning in a way that could allow us to race past our global competitors and usher in a true American Renaissance for the next hundred years,” he said. “It’s there for the taking if we have the courage to grab it and push beyond the problems that divide us today.”
Bush is not as skilled an orator as Rubio or President Obama -- the reaction in the room Friday night was subdued --but he too understands the power of storytelling. He recycled an anecdote he’s used before about a mother with a disabled child, Berthy Aponte, he met when he ran for governor in 1998. She insisted on escorting him on a tour of group homes and “wouldn’t let me come up for air.” The experience convinced him to focus on helping the developmentally disabled after he was elected.
“All this flowed from my personal connection with Berthy,” he said. “We used to be the party that understood personal connections and that they mattered. We need to be that party again. “
Before the speech, when word leaked that he had asked not to be included in the CPAC straw poll of possible presidential candidates, Bush appeared to be letting his ego get the best of him. But coupled with the meaty speech, his avoidance of the popularity contest allows him to retain an aura of gravitas and remain above the fray.
“I liked the way he ran Florida, because he didn’t play politics. He stayed true to his constituents,” said 37-year-old Kamran Etemad of New York City, wearing a “Jeb!’16” sticker on his jacket lapel. He was among about 100 people who waited in line earlier Friday to get Bush’s autograph in his new book. “I believe he’s a different kind of Bush, more centrist-right, and that’s the kind of president the country needs.”
Another Bush presidency? “Definitely no,” said 20-year-old Dimitri Skambas, a sophomore at Syracuse University, who was lurking around the book-signing. “Right now the country is trying to get out of a hole that his brother got us into. There’s so much negativity around the Bush name at a time the party is trying to rebrand itself. Besides, we have a slew of new young candidates to lead us into a positive future.”
But by virtue of his last name, his record as a two-term governor of the nation’s largest swing state, and his passion for politics and policy, the 60-year-Bush isn’t riding into the sunset just yet.