Bush vets back in action

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Bush veterans are striking back.

Senior officials from former President George W. Bush’s administration are wading into the fight over the Republican Party’s direction and future. 

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In conversations with The Hill, many White House alumni said they’re increasingly alarmed by the party’s libertarian drift on foreign policy and frustrated by the collapse of immigration reform legislation. In 2014, they’re worried the party might continue to nominate flawed candidates, and many aren’t staying quiet any longer. 

“The people from the Bush administration have certain values, and they definitely see some members of the party going too far to the extreme,” former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told The Hill. “There’s a more concerted effort to bring the party more into the mainstream, to bring our values more into the mainstream and get away from the extremes.”

Gutierrez led a major effort to back Republicans who supported immigration reform last year, including with a super-PAC and Capitol Hill lobbying.

Others have been focused on making sure the GOP doesn’t nominate unelectable candidates.

Karl Rove, Bush’s top political strategist, has been using his organization American Crossroads to back establishment candidates in a number of races. Crossroads launched an ad on Tuesday backing North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) over his primary rivals, and the group is also on the air in Alaska boosting former Bush administration official Dan Sullivan (R) in his three-way primary to face Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska).

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others have been increasingly vocal about the party’s isolationist drift on international issues, alarmed by developments in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) surge in early 2016 White House polls.

She touched on both immigration and foreign policy last week in a keynote address for the National Republican Congressional Committee’s annual fundraising dinner.

“Our values and our interests require defense. As Ronald Reagan famously said, peace really only comes through strength. What are we doing? What are we doing when we’re talking about a defense budget that is so small that our military starts to tell us that we may not in fact be able to carry out all of the requirements put upon it?” she said at the closed-press dinner, according to an audio recording of her remarks obtained by The Hill.

“We are a nation of immigrants, and I know it’s hard, but this nation of immigrants has got to remain a nation of immigrants, drawing to its shores the best and the brightest, the ambitious, those who belong with us and will make ‘we the people’ stronger,” Rice said later in her speech.

Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer co-authored an extensive report for the Republican National Committee last year, laying out what the party needed to fix to start winning elections.  He’s also helping some Bush alumni who are running for office, including former Bush official Taylor Griffin, who is challenging libertarian-leaning Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.).

Fleischer says he’s glad some of his former colleagues are speaking out. But he’s been frustrated by the party’s lack of progress on immigration reform, coupled with its isolationist foreign policy turn.

“I’m a George W. Bush guy when it comes to this issue,” he said on immigration. “It is important that America is a welcoming country and an inclusive country, and the Republican Party needs to be both as well, and if we’re always waiting until the next election to fix our broken immigration system, all we’ll do is always wait. And I’m not sure the voters will wait for us.”

Bush alumni say there isn’t a coordinated push to reassert control over the party, arguing their efforts have coincided because like-minded people are worried about where the party is heading. They also point out that many have remained involved since shortly after the Bush administration concluded, though many concede recent events have pushed some into increasing their presence. 

 “It’s ad hoc. The Bush alumni are scattered,” Fleischer said.

The number of Bush alumni running for office has also spiked this year as the former president’s approval rating has improved. Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie (R), former Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services Ben Sasse (R) and Sullivan are all running for the Senate, and a trio of former Bush officials are running for governor, with others running for the House.

Still, the increased efforts have yet to yield major wins, a sign that the trends the Bush alumni are so concerned about might continue in the Republican Party.

Immigration reform has flamed out despite a heavy push — Gutierrez says he’d be surprised if it happens anytime before 2016 — and Paul’s standing as a serious contender for the Republican nomination despite his dovish foreign policy views shows the party base might not be as internationalist as the Bush backers would hope. The GOP establishment’s push to nominate less controversial candidates could still fall short, as potentially problematic primaries in Georgia and North Carolina loom large. 

“Obviously the Republican Party has a lot of work to do,” former White House press secretary Dana Perino said.