As Republicans reassess their future in the presidential wilderness, seeking a message and messenger to resonate with a new generation of voters, one unlikely name has popped up as a role model: former President George W. Bush.
Prominent Republicans eager to rebuild the party in the wake of the 2012 election are pointing to Bush’s successful campaigns for Hispanic votes, his efforts to pass immigration reform, and his mantra of “compassionate conservatism.” Bush won 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000 and at least 40 percent in 2004, a high-water mark for a Republican presidential candidate.
In contrast, Romney received only 27 percent of the Latino vote, after taking a hard-line approach to illegal immigration during the Republican presidential primaries, touting “self-deportation” for undocumented workers. In exit polls, a majority of voters said that Romney was out of touch with the American people and that his policies would favor the rich. While Romney beat Obama on questions of leadership, values, and vision, the president trounced him by 63 points when voters were asked which candidate “cares about people like me.”
These signs of wear and tear to the Republican brand are prompting some of Bush’s critics to acknowledge his political foresight and ability to connect with a diverse swath of Americans, although the economic crash and unpopular wars on his watch make it unlikely he will ever be held up as a great president.
“I think I owe an apology to George W. Bush,” wrote Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large of the conservative National Review Online, after the election. “I still don't like compassionate conservatism or its conception of the role of government. But given the election results, I have to acknowledge that Bush was more prescient than I appreciated at the time.”
The ebb in Bush-bashing could help pave the way for a 2016 presidential bid by his brother, former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, another proponent of immigration reform with proven appeal in the Hispanic community. “The Bush family knows how to expand the party and how to win,” said GOP consultant Mark McKinnon, a former George W. Bush political aide, when asked about a possible Jeb Bush campaign. Voter wariness toward a third Bush administration could ease if the former president and his father, who served one term, are remembered less for their failures and more for their advocacy of “compassionate conservatism” and “a kinder, gentler nation.”
“I think all that certainly helps if Jeb decides to do so something down the road, though I think he will eventually be judged on his own,” said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, who led the Florida Republican Party when Bush was governor.
President Bush’s press secretary, Ari Fleischer, was tapped last week by the Republican National Committee to serve on a five-member committee examining what went wrong in the 2012 election. Two days earlier, a survey released by Resurgent Republic and the Hispanic Leadership Network found that a majority of Hispanic voters in Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and New Mexico don’t think the GOP “respects” their values and concerns.
“One of the party’s biggest challenges going forward is the perception that Republicans don’t care about people, about minorities, about gays, about poor people,” Fleischer said. “President Bush regularly made a push to send welcoming messages, and one of the lessons of 2012 is that we have to demonstrate that we are an inclusive party.”
President Bush’s success with minority voters stemmed in large part from his two campaigns for governor in Texas. He liked to say, “Family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande.” Unlike Romney, who invested little in Spanish-language advertising until the final two months of his campaign, Bush began reaching out to Hispanics early; he outspent his Democratic opponents in Spanish media in both the 2000 and 2004 campaigns.
“I remember people grumbling about making calls in December 2003, but we kept pushing,” said Jennifer Korn, who led Bush’s Hispanic outreach in his 2004 campaign. The president’s upbeat Spanish-language ads depicted Latino families getting ahead in school and at work. “I’m with Bush because he understands my family,” was the theme of one spot.
Korn, who now serves as executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network, said Republicans are constantly asking her how the party can win a bigger share of the Latino vote.
“I tell them we already did it,” she said. “President Obama just took Bush’s plan and updated it.”
Republicans are also looking at the groundwork that Bush laid on immigration reform. He has kept a low profile since leaving office, but he waded into the debate in a speech in Dallas last month. The legislation he backed in his second term would have increased border security, created a guest-worker program, and allowed illegal immigrants to earn citizenship after paying penalties and back taxes.