Jeb Bush contemplates 2016

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who of course is also the brother of one President and son of another, appeared on NBC’s Today show to discuss his new book, Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solutionwhich he co-authored with Clint Bolick of the Goldwater and Hoover Institutions.  Only a portion of the interview was dedicated to the topic of the book.  The remainder consisted of Bush holding forth on other issues of the day, especially sequestration, as he tested the waters for a 2016 presidential run that he says he refuses to rule out:

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Bush made some interesting points about how the sequestration drama is so completely at variance with the traditional process of hammering out a budget.  That process is usually loud and contentious… but it ends fairly swiftly, unlike the perpetual campaign that led us to sequestration hysteria.  

He was strongly critical of that hysteria: “The President kind of led the charge to say that widows and orphans were going to be out on the street.  So when it didn???t happen, he actually himself had to step back on Friday to say it wasn???t going to happen that way.”  Some may find it dismaying that Bush appeared open to the idea of increased tax revenue, although it should be noted that he was careful to specify that revenue would enter the discussion only “if the President is sincere about dealing with our structural problems.”  If he means the entitlement crisis, that day is a long way off.

On the immigration issue, Bush is all in favor of comprehensive reform – in fact, he lamented the way our fiscal crisis is distracting attention from the immigration issue – but his strategy, as detailed in his new book, is considerably different from the “emerging consensus” championed by his prospective 2016 rival for the GOP nomination, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.  (Wasn’t the language Bush used to describe that immigration consensus, “cats and dogs getting along a little more,” mentioned as a sign of the Apocalypse in Ghostbusters?)

Bush advocated a legal status well short of citizenship for illegal aliens who comply with the new rules laid down by immigration reform.  ???There has to be some difference between people who come here legally and illegally. It???s just a matter of common sense and a matter of the rule of law,??? he insisted. ???If we???re not going to apply the law fairly and consistently, then we???re going to have another wave of illegal immigrants coming into the country.???

Asked about the “snub” of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie by the Conservative Political Action Conference, Bush (who will appear at CPAC 2013) charted a deftly conciliatory course – expressing “surprise” that Christie would not speak, but also understanding the reasons Christie was not invited, particularly his strident attack on Republican legislators for holding up the pork-stuffed Hurricane Sandy relief bill.  Bush also noted that Christie spoke at CPAC last year, and expressed confidence that he’d be back next year.  That’s some very smooth politics, folks.  Not everyone can handle a “gotcha” question so adroitly, and make it look like he’s speaking off the cuff.  Keep that in mind when you’re looking over Jeb’s resume in 2016.

Of course, the name at the top of that resume is going to be a big problem, especially if the Democrats are running Hillary Clinton in 2016.  Are Bush’s family connections an insurmountable obstacle?  He clearly doesn’t think so.  If he holds to the positions expressed in his Today interview, he’ll be charting a course slightly to Rubio’s right on immigration, and slightly to the left on taxes, depending on what sort of “grand bargain” he’d expect to see before agreeing to extract more revenue from the American taxpayer.  It remains to be seen if there is a market for such a candidate.

If he’s running a good race going into the primaries, perhaps Bush could draw some support from Republicans looking forward to a symbolic Bush vs. Clinton rematch.  And if he’s not looking strong going into the 2016 primaries, his last name will make it all the easier for doubters to dismiss him.

As for the general American voting population, conventional wisdom says they’re allergic to “dynasties” and grouchy about the memory of George W. Bush.  But Hillary Clinton would be the second installment in a presidential dynasty, the public seems reasonably comfortable with having an aristocracy, and Barack Obama has been working overtime to make the Bush years look good.  And in any event, Jeb Bush looks eager to prove that he’s not his brother, or his father.

Update: Perhaps that course Bush is charting around Marco Rubio on immigration is even less hard to starboard than it seemed, because the morning after the Today show interview, he was already walking it back… and disagreeing with his own book.  “We wrote this book last year, not this year,” he explained.

Now he says he might just endorse that pathway to full citizenship, provided it doesn’t provide “an incentive for people to come illegally.”  He says he doesn’t have a problem with citizenship under those circumstances… except “I don’t see how you do it, but I’m not smart enough to figure out every aspect of a complex law.”

Clear as mud!  Bush seems to be taking some pains not to sabotage whatever Rubio accomplishes, and keep his options open to run either way, in the wake of an immigration deal that will be done long before he could reach the White House.  If it’s not working, his book was right; if it is working, he can applaud the genius of Marco Rubio, and run against him on some other issue.  It’s flexible politics, but not exactly inspiring leadership.

Fortunately for Bush, the American public is so conflicted on the immigration issue – the only thing they really agree on is that the current situation is untenable, and they don’t want to make hard-working immigrants or their American-born children suffer – that they might be willing to forget about some public 2013 dithering by the time 2016 rolls around.  But… if Immigration Wars is no longer an accurate representation of Bush’s thinking, shouldn’t he pull it off the shelves to rewrite it, or at least take his name off the cover?