Jeb Bush: Too Many Burned Bridges to Run in 2016?

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, brother and son of presidents, was in the news on Monday, appearing on NBC's Today show to hawk his new book on immigration reform.

But given the perpetual nature of our presidential campaigns, the conversation inevitably turned to the question of whether Governor Bush would run for the Republican nomination for president in 2016. In response, Bush said:

[T]hat's way off in the future. I have a voice. I want to share my beliefs about how the conservative moment and the Republican Party can regain its footing, because we've lost our way.

Pressed by host Matt Lauer on whether he would not rule out a run for president in 2016, Bush answered "I won't. But I won't declare it today either."

The speculation isn't idle. In addition to promoting his book Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution -- publication of which was moved up several months in order to have an impact on the debate over immigration reform -- Bush travels later this week to Coral Gables to pow-wow with GOP kingmakers at the party's quarterly finance committee meeting. And then next week, Bush is scheduled to speak at CPAC, an event he claims to have reluctantly agreed to attend. When asked why he was going, he said:

"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.

Yes, it's usually not useful trying to read the tea leaves nearly four years away from another brutal round of primaries. But in this case, we may want to make an exception. As important as the 2012 election was to the country and the Republican Party, 2016 is going to be the Alamo Election for the GOP. The party is already in the tall grass of American politics, blundering toward the wilderness, and another loss in 2016 -- the 5th in the last seven presidential contests -- would make the aftermath of the 2012 election look like a Hari Krishna convention. The bloodletting and splintering would have impossible-to-predict results, except that the national party would end up being even weaker and more disorganized than it is now -- if that's possible.

So it is important to us even at this early date to discover what Jeb Bush is thinking. That's because he could win. He is a hugely talented politician who could raise a boatload of cash and have his pick of the top strategists in the party to develop a nationwide organization.

He also possesses a name that, at least today, is poison to the American people. More importantly, his harsh criticisms of Republicans over the last year has angered many key factions of the party. At the very least, he will have some serious fence-mending to do if he wants to compete in those primaries that will be decided by the conservative base.

Bush's anger at the base of the GOP wouldn't be so surprising if he didn't echo the same criticism of the party made by Democrats. One year ago in Dallas, Bush made this comment in answer to a question:

“I used to be a conservative, and I watch these debates and. ... I don’t think I’ve changed,” Bush said during an appearance Thursday, according to reports.

“But it’s a little troubling sometimes when people are appealing to people’s fears and emotion,” he said, “rather than trying to get them to look over the horizon for a broader perspective, and that’s kind of where we are.”

He made further heretical statements in June when he castigated Republicans for their refusal to accept a budget deal with a ratio of budget cuts to tax increases of 10-1. Calling for bipartisanship, Bush's most pointed remark was his belief that Ronald Reagan would not be entirely welcome by today's Republican Party:

"Ronald Reagan would have … a hard time if you define the Republican Party—and I don’t—as having an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement, doesn’t allow for finding some common ground," Bush said, adding that he views the partisan sclerosis as "temporary."

"Back to my dad’s time and Ronald Reagan’s time—they got a lot of stuff done with a lot of bipartisan support," he said. Today Reagan "would be criticized for doing the things that he did."

Jeb has a short memory because Reagan was heavily criticized for some of his policies, including his tax increases and his negotiations on nuclear arms reductions with the Soviets. But again, Bush was echoing the worst criticism that national Democrats were directing toward the GOP. Did he really have to do that?

But it is on immigration and outreach to Hispanics that Jeb Bush has been most vocal. He called Republicans "stupid" for stressing border security over immigration reform and not embracing a more inclusive attitude toward Hispanics and other immigrants.

Demographically, he is 100% correct. Politically, it is a stance not likely to win him any friends among conservatives and simply gives the right one more reason not to support him. Is that smart? One might claim it is a principled position, but why not grant the same to your opponents?

Jeb Bush's problems go far beyond his name and even his harsh criticisms of the party. He now finds himself to the right of fellow Floridian and friend Senator Marco Rubio, who supports a "path to citizenship" for illegals. Bush also formerly supported the concept, but the champion of Latin outreach in the party told Matt Lauer during his appearance on Today that he now opposes it.

"There has to be some difference between people who come here legally and illegally," said Bush, the younger brother of former President George W. Bush. "It's just a matter of common sense and a matter of the rule of law. If we're not going to apply the law fairly and consistently, then we're going to have another wave of illegal immigrants coming into the country."

Just months earlier, during a June appearance on CBS, Bush explicitly referred to a pathway to citizenship as something "I would support."

Allahpundit suspects a subtle bit of politicking at work:

Is there any obvious explanation for this reversal besides him watching Rubio roll out the Senate bipartisan bill, suddenly realizing that his 2016 niche on immigration had now been filled by a younger, more charismatic candidate, and then repositioning himself as moderately hawkish on this issue in order to gain a second look from conservatives? This shift has to be electorally-driven because there’s no way his new plan — allowing illegals to apply for permanent residency but not citizenship — will ever be accepted as policy. For Democrats, it’s a non-starter. The whole point of comprehensive reform on their end is to add illegals to the voter rolls sooner or later. Even if, by some strange twist of luck, Bush’s plan was implemented, immigration activists would get to work immediately on changing the law (legislatively or in court) so that illegals-turned-permanent-residents could eventually apply for citizenship.

A small, fence-mending step toward conservatives? He has to start somewhere, and immigration is as good a place as any to reach out.

The idea that the establishment's preferred candidate can garner many conservative votes seems remote at this point. It may be worse after 2014 if the GOP experiences another debacle. The party might double down and nominate a "true" conservative who would energize the base, but find votes from the rest of the country hard to come by.

If that happens, Jeb Bush will almost certainly be on the outside looking in, perhaps regretting the bridges he burned in his desire to appeal to a broad base of voters by stressing his ability to criticize Republicans as harshly as he criticizes Democrats.