The Mighty Jeb Bush Comes Down to Earth

Beth Reinhard
National Journal

What has gotten into Jeb Bush?

As two-term governor of Florida, he prided himself on “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” or “BHAGs,” such as pushing private-school vouchers for kids in failing public schools and doing away with affirmative action in state contracts and university admissions. He didn’t balk at taking unpopular positions against smaller class sizes or in favor of government intervention to prolong the life of a severely brain-damaged woman. Bush didn’t shy from defying his party, either, coming out in favor of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants and rejecting Republican antitax dogma. He was bold, principled, and infuriating, inspiring near adulation from a Republican establishment weary of trying to appease the conservative grassroots. That he passed up opportunities to run for higher office and devoted himself to an educational think tank only enhanced his stature as policy-obsessed statesman in a world of political hacks.

“Jeb Bush has always been seen as a straight talker who wasn’t afraid to talk about where the Republican Party needed to go,” said former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who serves with Bush on the national advisory committee of the Hispanic Leadership Network. “He is a reliable thought leader.”

But in the last couple of days, a different Jeb Bush seems to have emerged. In a new book, the typically uncompromising Republican has abandoned his previous support for allowing illegal immigrants to earn citizenship. Bush defended his position in interviews on Monday, but began backpedaling Tuesday and said he would support a pathway to citizenship as long as it didn’t give preferential treatment to illegal immigrants. In a particularly awkward interview on CNN, Bush was forced to admit, "So I have supported both, both a path to legalization or a path to citizenship."

The waffling and word-mincing has stunned immigration reformers, frustrated his friends, and left Democrats relishing the public-relations disaster. “@JebBush a flip-flop-flip on immigration? Wow,” said Democratic National Party Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida on Twitter. “I fashioned you more of a baseball player than a gymnast. My bad.”

Bush’s closest allies insist that he hasn’t changed; it’s the immigration debate in his party that’s lurched forward. When he wrote the book with coauthor Clint Bolick last year, Republican nominee Mitt Romney was lashing out at his rivals for supporting “amnesty” and promoting “self-deportation.” Bush sent his book to the printer before Christmas, just as President Obama’s overwhelming success with Hispanic voters was prompting Republican leaders to reconsider their hardline stance against illegal immigration. In January, a bipartisan group of senators embraced a sweeping set of reforms, including a pathway to citizenship.

So instead of trying to move his party forward on immigration reform, Bush unexpectedly finds himself trying to catch up. 

“It’s a hard issue to navigate and the sands shifting so rapidly have hurt his footing in demonstrable ways,” said Dan Gelber, who as the Democratic leader in the Florida House frequently sparred with then-Gov. Bush. “He doesn’t have his typical balance. This is a much more nuanced, parsed, and political Bush than what we’re accustomed to.”

Bush's consideration of a presidential bid in 2016 could be tripping him up, though allies insist his policy positions are impervious to any political ambitions. Perhaps after being out of office for more than six years, away from the daily media scrum and relying only informally on a handful of political advisers outside of his educational foundation, Bush is a little off his game. And perhaps his reputation in a party casting about for leadership had grown larger than life, like the guy or girl who got away that you always wonder about. 

Jeb Bush, as it turns out, is a mere mortal. 

In another unexpected development, Bush’s former protégé, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., looks like the real trailblazer on immigration reform. In fact, Rubio had aligned himself with the anti-amnesty wing of the party and only recently came out in favor of a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. “Frankly, on this issue I don't think Jeb Bush is a Florida leader. I think Marco Rubio is,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid quipped to reporters on Tuesday, knowing better.

Publicly, Bush is nothing but gracious toward Rubio, a potential presidential contender himself. Talking about immigration reform Tuesday morning on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Bush said, “I’m pleased that there are people now that have embraced this idea and are working diligently inside the process to create a consensus. Marco Rubio, I think, has done great work in that regard and he deserves to be praised.”

Privately, Bush is doing damage control via e-mail, assuring supporters that his intent is to offer House Republicans leery of amnesty attacks an opening into the immigration. He’s willing to take the political heat, he says, if he can get them to the negotiating table.

Little did he know that by the time his book hit, they had beaten him to the punch.