GO
Loading...

Jeb Bush in 2016? Not Too Early for Chatter

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Now that the Obama and Romney campaigns have closed their headquarters in Chicago and Boston, the attention of the political world is shifting to an office suite tucked behind the colonnades of the Biltmore Hotel complex here.

Getty Images

The suite is where former Gov. Jeb Bush manages his consulting business, his education foundation and, now, the (very) early decision-making process for a possible presidential run in 2016.

When former President Bill Clinton rolled through here while campaigning for President Obama, he speculated about Mr. Bush's intentions with Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist and friend of Mr. Bush. It was no idle topic for Mr. Clinton, given the possibility that his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, could seek the Democratic nomination.

When Senator Marco Rubio of Florida held a strategy session here to discuss his own political future last week, the question of Mr. Bush, a mentor, hung over the room; a decision by Mr. Bush, 59, to seek the Republican nomination would almost certainly halt any plans by Mr. Rubio, 41, to do so or abruptly set off a new intraparty feud.

Mr. Bush is said by friends to be weighing financial and family considerations — between so many years in office and the recession his wealth took a dip, they said, and he has been working hard to restore it — as well as the complicated place within the Republican Party of the Bush brand. Asked this week about whether his father would run, Jeb Bush Jr. told CNN, "I certainly hope so."

For now, however, "It's neither a 'no' nor a 'yes' — it's a 'wait and see,' " said Al Cardenas, the chairman of the American Conservative Union and a longtime friend and adviser to Mr. Bush. "It continues to intrigue him, given how much he has to share with the country."

After Mitt Romney's defeat by a Democratic coalition built around overwhelming support from Hispanics and other fast-growing demographic groups, many Republicans are looking for a candidate who can help make the party more inclusive without ceding conservative principles — and no one is the subject of more speculation at this point than Mr. Bush.

To his supporters, Mr. Bush is the man for the moment. His wife, Columba, was born and raised in Mexico. He speaks Spanish and favors overhauling the immigration system in a way that would provide a route to citizenship for people already in the country illegally but otherwise law-abiding.

Mr. Bush supports school choice and stricter performance standards, pitting him against teachers' unions but putting him in league with Republican power brokers like the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch. Mr. Bush's education project, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, has support from major party donors like the Walton family and the hedge fund executive Paul E. Singer, and has attracted support from the Bloomberg and Gates foundations.

Mr. Bush opposes abortion, and he is no less an opponent of higher taxes than his brother, President George W. Bush, was in his two terms. However, he has refused to sign the antitax pledge of the conservative activist Grover Norquist, who helped lead the rebellion against his father when the elder President Bush broke his own "no new taxes" promise during his first and only term.

He could also benefit from what some Republicans see as a modest vein of Bush nostalgia, marked by a video shown at the Republican National Convention about his father, who is 88 and contending with a form of Parkinson's disease and declining health.

Any political future for Jeb Bush depends on whether that warmer tide will be enough to offset lingering bad feelings about the family brand after the presidency of George W. Bush, who continues to be criticized by many conservatives for presiding over bailouts and expanding the size of government.

Still, calls for Jeb Bush to enter the arena in a bigger way represent vindication of a sort. His family's longstanding advocacy for a more broad-based and "compassionate" Republican Party was largely ignored and eventually repudiated by the populist, small-government conservatives who held sway over the party after Mr. Obama's election.

George W. Bush's break with the populist right began midway through his second term over his support for a pathway to citizenship for some illegal immigrants, which grass-roots activists labeled an amnesty plan. His push for immigration legislation failed.

This year, even before Election Day, Jeb Bush was warning of what he called his party's "stupid" approach to illegal immigration. (Mr. Obama took 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to interviews with voters.)

"The day after the election, I started getting e-mails and texts from friends and others wanting Governor Bush to run and asking whether he would," said Justin Sayfie, a Florida lobbyist who served as an adviser to Mr. Bush when he was governor.

The calls for Mr. Bush to step forward have grown louder since Mr. Romney told donors that Mr. Obama won the election by giving "gifts" of government benefits to Hispanics, African-Americans and younger voters.

"That stupid comment that came out of Mitt Romney's mouth would never in a million years have come out of Jeb Bush's mouth because he doesn't think it," said Ms. Navarro, the strategist, who sees Mr. Bush regularly at the Biltmore, a gathering spot for local politicos. "This election result has made Jeb Bush's voice that much wiser and that much more needed for the Republican Party: What he's been warning about all along proved to be true."

After waiting his turn following his brother, Mr. Bush, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is not commenting publicly on the election's outcome. But he has assured friends that he will step forward as the nation again grapples with how to address illegal immigration. He is co-author of a book called "Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution," to be published in the spring.

His complicated political considerations include the question of whether the country would consider electing another Bush.

"When do you think John Quincy Adams was able to put his father's unpopularity behind him?" Haley Barbour, the former Mississippi governor and Republican Party chairman, said during an interview last week in Las Vegas, where he was attending the annual meeting of the Republican Governors Association.

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, to whom Mr. Bush has given advice, said Mr. Bush's brand is based on his record in Florida and his continuing policy work.

"The irony is the platform that he has is based more on his first name and what he did in Florida than what his last name is," Mr. Walker said in an interview.

However, Mr. Bush's friends say, his last name is not his biggest concern. Aside from financial matters, friends said he is also conscious of how a run would affect his family, especially the political prospects of his sons.

Jeb Bush Jr., 29, is a founder of a political action committee, Sun Pac, formed to promote and recruit conservative Hispanic political candidates.

George P. Bush, 36, has filed paperwork in Texas in preparation for a campaign to become land commissioner.

A few days after Election Day, George P. Bush was in Dallas for a fund-raising event for the Foundation for Family Literacy, a group started by his grandmother Barbara Bush.

After reading an excerpt from her novel "It's Classified" as part of the program, Nicolle Wallace, a communications director in George W. Bush's White House, addressed the young Bushes in attendance. After the election results, she said, "I'm counting on all of you."

Right there, cheering with the crowd, was the family's matriarch, the former first lady.

Jim Rutenberg reported from Coral Gables, and Jeff Zeleny from Las Vegas. Lizette Alvarez contributed reporting from Miami.

Contact Politics

  • CNBC NEWSLETTERS

    Get the best of CNBC in your inbox

    › Learn More