The GOP's Bush Dilemma


Jeb and George Bush sit with an interview with CNN's Candy Crowley.

This morning, Washington solved the mystery of Jeb Bush's strange about-face on immigration reform: It was a simple case of political calculation gone wrong. In his new book, Immigration Wars: Forging a New Solution, the former Florida governor comes out against a path to citizenship, a policy he formerly endorsed. "Permanent residency in this context, however, should not lead to citizenship," Bush writes. "It is absolutely vital to the integrity of our immigration system that actions have consequences — in this case, that those who violated the laws can remain but cannot obtain the cherished fruits of citizenship."

The key thing to remember is that this was written during the GOP presidential primaries, when support for comprehensive immigration reform—even without a path to citizenship—placed Bush to the left of most Republicans. Now, shell-shocked from their poor showing among Latino voters, Republicans have embraced immigration reform as a necessity, with some lawmakers—like Marco Rubio, Bush's protege—going as far as to endorse a path to citizenship, albeit with heavy penalties.

This attempt to maneuver around internal GOP politics has left Bush with a muddled position. He doesn't support a path to citizenship, except that he could support one under the right circumstances. Writing for The Washington Post, Chris Cillizza sees this—as well as Bush's statements on sequestration and a "grand bargain"—as evidence that the former governor is taking a leadership role in the party. I think that's right. Bush is one of the few Republicans to command respect from all wings of the party—from establishmentarians to conservative activists. He's not necessarily running for the White House—though that's a possibility—but he is almost certainly trying to influence the GOP's direction, and step into the leadership vacuum left by the 2012 elections.

With all of that said, there's something unusual about this that's gone unmentioned. There seems to be broad—if unspoken—agreement from Republican elites that Bush's name isn't a problem for the party, despite the public's wide disdain for his brother. Recall last year, when Mitt Romney's perceived competence on the economy was outweighed by the public's unwillingness to fully blame Obama for economic conditions. Instead, a majority of the public consistently blamed George W. Bush for the economic slowdown.

Moreover, if there's anything abundantly clear from the last four years of Republican Party politics, it's that the party has yet to grapple with the legacy of the Bush administration. As Samuel Goldman notes for The Week magazine, conservatives "remain in denial about the cause of Republicans' unpopularity: the catastrophic failure of the Bush presidency."

Few Republicans—even genuine reformers like Ross Douthat and Ramesh Ponnuru—have anything to say about Bush's disastrous war in Iraq and his mismanaged war in Afghanistan, two things that continue to stand out in the public's mind (Iraq is arguably what gave Barack Obama the Democratic nomination in 2008).

Likewise, the current crop of Republicans seem blind to the fact that Americans caught a glimpse of "small government" in action when the previous Republican administration allowed New Orleans to drown and suffer during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

If Jeb Bush is well-suited to leading the GOP, it might just be because he doesn't challenge Republicans to deal with the failures of the immediate past. The "new" Bush, in some ironic sense, represents a clean break with the old one.

The problem is that the public remembers. And a critical mass—including the large majority of minorities and younger voters—had their political identities shaped by the many failures of George W. Bush. They might be voting against him—and the Republican Party he led—for the rest of their lives.

Conservatives are limited in what they can do about this—political identities are durable—but they're not helped by pretending Bush never happened.