Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush raised eyebrows over the weekend when he seemed to indicate the door wasn’t entirely shut on a 2012 White House bid.
He told Fox News, “You never say never,” which in the hyper-scrutinized world of presidential handicapping is bound to keep eyebrows suspended.
He wouldn’t just bring the ability to unite the party, the thinking goes, he’d help the party reel in the crucial Hispanic vote in a general election.
In his gubernatorial races, Bush took 56 percent of the Hispanic vote, and has claimed the Republican Party will become essentially extinct at the national level if 40 percent of the Hispanic vote is its ceiling. To that end, he co-chairs the Hispanic Leadership Network, a group designed to attract more Hispanics to the GOP.
And polling suggests that Florida — and its 29 electoral votes — would be a gimme for the GOP with the state’s former governor at the helm in 2012. An April poll showed Bush beating President Obama by 19 percent in the state.
But next year’s electoral landscape will be vastly different from the one in 2008.
In a primary process that’s expected to be dominated by sharp criticisms of liberalism and Obama, there’s little indication from Bush’s record or rhetoric that he would attract the kind of grassroots conservatives who’ve provided so much vitality to the party since the 2008 election.
First, he’d get hammered on immigration, where — like his brother — he’s favored comprehensive reform and dialing down the rhetoric.
“I think we need to change the tone of the conversation as it relates to immigration,” he told Newsmax magazine. “I mean, it just drives me nuts when there are substantive policy differences that we can show mutual respect on, but the tone needs to change.”
He also broke with most of his party when he opposed Arizona’s controversial immigration law, calling it the “wrong approach” in a December speech. In fact, Bush acknowledged the political difficulties of the position in a primary, joking at the time that his stance was clear proof he wasn’t running.
Bush also would be hammered for his refusal to hammer hard. Soon after Obama’s election, he betrayed a moderate temperament that seemed to miss the entire Tea Party movement that was brewing.
“The tone of the debate reached a point that was very damning to the Republican Party, and the evidence is in. The chest-pounders lost,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “Politics has to be about ideas and values and aspirations. It shouldn’t be about anger and preying on people’s emotions.”
As Democrats would tell you in 2006 and 2008, and Republicans would tell you in 2010, anger can be an enormously effective tool for gaining power.
Business mogul Donald Trump’s short-lived but popular flirtation with a presidential run is proof that there’s a strong market for it in 2012. To many, Bush might seem too quiet and genteel — the representative of his father’s 1988 call for a “kinder, gentler” nation.
Similarly damning was his call for the Republican Party to move beyond “nostalgia” for the Ronald Reagan years.
On his radio show, Rush Limbaugh called it a shot at former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whom Limbaugh viewed as a return to Reagan. Other conservative talk shows hosts have indicated they wouldn’t be too fond of a return to the Bush years.
On her popular radio program, Laura Ingraham said “there’s nothing more establishment than the Bush name,” and after Bush appeared with Obama for an education event in Florida, the conservative talker ripped him.
“It isn’t as bad as [then-Florida Gov.] Charlie Crist embracing him for the stimulus package, but it was pretty close,” she told Fox News before launching a broader attack. “I think Jeb Bush and Barack Obama have a lot more in common on some key issues than Jeb Bush has with the Tea Party movement.”
But Bush has his defenders among conservatives.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who’s emerged as the leading conservative kingmaker, spoke for many when he told the St. Petersburg Times last year that Bush would do well as president.
“He would be a great president,” he said. “Bush has been very bold and principled.”
Intellectual leaders have been similarly effusive. As potentially strong candidates opted out of the race earlier this year, a swell of conservative thinkers turned to Bush as the one hope to unite all three factions of the Republican Party — economic conservatives, social conservatives and foreign-policy hawks.
The National Review’s Rich Lowry wrote: “The establishment would presumably flock to Jeb, while he’d have a record of solid conservative accomplishment to sell to the conservative base.”
But if the GOP’s hope for 2012 is to find a candidate who can appeal to both the establishment and Tea Party, Bush, in that regard, might not be any more promising than many of the current contenders.
Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a staff member at The Hill.