Republicans Turn to Bush for Inspiration

Beth Reinhard
National Journal

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.

“America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time,” Bush said in Dallas. “As our nation debates the proper course of action related to immigration I hope we do so with a benevolent spirit and keep in mind the contributions of immigrants.”

Bush is even a presence in the current high-stakes budget negotiations between Capitol Hill and the White House. Although the tax cuts enacted by the Bush administration for the wealthiest Americans have been a major sticking point, the tax policy it put in place for the vast majority of households has bipartisan support.

“When you consider that the Obama administration is talking about not whether to extend the Bush tax cuts but how much of them to extend, you see that Bush is still setting the agenda,” said Republican consultant Alex Castellanos, who worked on Bush’s 2004 campaign.

While a possible presidential bid by Jeb Bush heightens the impact of his brother’s evolving legacy, it’s not unusual for a president’s image to change after leaving office. (Look at former President Clinton, who enjoyed positive ratings during most of his presidency, infuriated Obama supporters during Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008, and emerged after the election as a better Democratic spokesman than Obama.)  Gallup pegged Bush’s presidential approval at 25 percent at the end of his second term, the lowest ranking since Richard Nixon. But after President Obama spearheaded unpopular spending packages and health care reforms, Bush’s popularity began to tick up.

A Bloomberg News survey in late September showed Bush’s favorability at 46 percent, 3 points higher than Romney’s rating. Still, with a majority of voters viewing the former president unfavorably, Romney rarely, if ever, mentioned his name during the campaign. Asked to address the differences between him and the former president in one of the debates, Romney said, “I’m going to get us to a balanced budget. President Bush didn’t.” Obama seized on the comparison, taking the unusual tack of praising the Republican successor he had vilified in his first campaign to portray Romney as an extremist.

“George Bush didn’t propose turning Medicare into a voucher,” Obama said. “George Bush embraced comprehensive immigration reform. He didn’t call for self-deportation. George Bush never suggested that we eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood.”

Democrats and moderate Republicans found themselves cheering for Bush, if only for a moment. A majority of voters said that Bush is more to blame for the current economic problems than Obama, according to exit polling. If Bush wasn’t the bigger scapegoat, Obama may not have won a second term.

Veterans of Bush’s campaigns and administrations say that while learning from his mistakes, Republicans should also take note of the political risks he took by proposing reforms to immigration and education laws and boosting funding for community health centers and AIDS outreach in Africa.

“One of the issues we ran into in the 2012 campaign is that there weren’t a lot of differences between Mitt Romney and Republican orthodoxy,” said Terry Nelson, Bush’s political director in the 2004 campaign. “I think that’s something Republican candidates in the future have to consider.  The public respects it when you can show you can stand up to your party on certain issues. Bush did that.”