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A.B. Stoddard: Jeb stalling in neutral

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Guess who isn’t running for president? Jeb Bush. Just listen to him.

The GOP presidential race is frozen until the former Florida governor makes his decision, and he sounds like a man ready to run for the hills. Asked about his thinking this week, Bush was blunt: “It’s a big sacrifice because it’s a pretty ugly business right now,” he said. 

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In addition, Bush has not abandoned or amended his support for immigration reform and Common Core education standards, and both are deal-breakers with the far right. Though he said he knows how a Republican can win — a candidate must be more “uplifting” and “positive,” and willing to “lose the primary to win the general” without violating your principles” — Bush conceded, “It’s not an easy task, to be honest with you.” He wondered aloud if he could “lift people’s spirits and not get sucked into the vortex.”

Voices on the right are growing louder, hoping to drive him from the race. Conservative talk show host Mark Levin recently called Bush “a very good moderate Democrat,” while conservative activist Richard Viguerie said he doesn’t know of any conservatives who are supporting Bush.

Bush’s viability has always focused on this question: Did the party move past the divisive issue of immigration, after Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss to President Obama, when he won only 27 percent of Latino support to Obama’s 71 percent? And the answer is no. After much hand-wringing about the impact of GOP opposition to immigration reform, and the burgeoning influence of Latino votes on the path to 270 electoral votes, the GOP is more divided over the issue now than it was in 2012. 

Sure, many important Republican leaders want reform. But can Bush count on the desire of Speaker John Boehner, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, the Wall Street Journal editorial board and Karl Rove to help attract conservatives to a bill that goes far enough to neutralize this issue against a Democrat appealing to larger Latino electorate in 2016? Nope. Those Republicans want a broad bill, but the new GOP majorities are only more opposed to reform, not less. And the president’s executive order on immigration, as well as the recent border crisis, makes it more difficult, not less.

Two years after the party’s last standard-bearer supported “self-deportation,” any GOP 2016 hopeful knows an even faint defense of deferred deportations or legalization, even temporary, would be painted as amnesty and derided by activists who influence the outcomes in key presidential primary states. Not only did Bush not criticize the substance of Obama’s executive order (deferring deportations, providing entitlement benefits and work permits to undocumented immigrants), he urged the party to see immigration “as an economic tool for sustained growth.” He hardly sounds like a man who is busy behind closed doors trying to convince donors he can overcome the condemnation from Rush Limbaugh and Levin.

Bush has thought about running. Frankly, as a Bush, it is his duty when party stalwarts plead with him to save the party and rescue the country to say, yes, it would be his honor to consider the mission. But he knows more than any candidate, save for Hillary Clinton, who has run her own campaign and was spouse in two, how awful running for president can be. He saw his father and brother each do it twice, followed by what happened once they served as president as well. 

People who run for president burn for the prize, focus only on the outcome, so what keeps them going once they realize it’s a buzz saw is drive. Bush has seen the vortex up close, and he doesn’t sound the least bit driven.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.