Does Jeb Bush Have the ‘Fire in the Belly’ to Run?
Policy + Politics

Does Jeb Bush Have the ‘Fire in the Belly’ to Run?

REUTERS/Mike Segar

Does former Florida governor Jeb Bush have “the fire in his belly” to run for president in 2016 – even if it means going against the ardent wishes of many Republican conservatives and some members of his storied political family?

That was the question of the hour after Bush’s extraordinary interview with “Fox News Sunday” last weekend in which he enraged conservatives with his new, “kinder, gentler” take on immigration reform and his world-weary dismissiveness of the rough-and-tumble of modern day presidential politics.

Related: Jeb Bush’s Heretical View of Illegal Immigration

Bush, 61, the younger brother of former President George W. Bush and the son of former President George H.W. Bush, is generating buzz since The Washington Post reported recently that party leaders and moneymen had launched a campaign to draft him into the 2016 presidential race. Bush would be an alternative to scandal-plagued N.J. Gov. Chris Christie and up-and-coming Tea Party conservatives such as Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Tex Cruz (R-TX).

Bush is keeping his own counsel. But early speculation is that there are too many obstacles to his jumping into the race at the end of this year – including opposition from his Mexican-born wife, Columba, who has always shunned the limelight and kept a low profile even when she was First Lady of Florida.

“I’ve consistently believed that he is interested in listening to those people who think he should run,” Brian Crowley, a veteran Florida political analyst who has covered Bush’s career, said Wednesday. “But I have always believed that when push comes to shove, he’s not going to do it.”

“I would be stunned if he runs,” added a veteran Republican political consultant who declined to be identified. “If your partner in life really detests politics, it would be pretty darned tough to dive into a presidential race – which is a 24/7 kind of commitment for years on end.” 

Related: Jeb Bush: 10 Things You Should Know About Him

While arguably the most thoughtful and wonkish member of the Bush political family, Jeb Bush has operated largely in the shadows of his famous father and older brother. After losing his first bid for the governorship, Bush became the first and only Republican to be elected serve two full terms as governor of Florida. During his eight years in Tallahasee, from 1999 to 2007, Bush drew praise for improving the economy, environment, and health care. But he’s known especially for successful educational reforms.

In March 2013, many in the GOP establishment were dismayed by his rejection of a path to citizenship laid out in his book, Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution. The book’s six-point proposal included a call to legalize the nation’s undocumented immigrants – but without a path to citizenship – stressing the need to maintain the rule of law as well as appeal to conservatives.

Related: A Republican Path to Citizenship – Via Boot Camp

Some critics suggested Bush had become politically rusty and was out of step with the conventional wisdom of the time, as the Senate moved toward a bipartisan agreement on immigration reform that included a path to citizenship. Shortly after the book came out, Bush publicly switched positions and said he now favored a path to citizenship – a position reviled by conservative House Republicans.

During a celebration of the 25th anniversary of his father's inauguration at George H.W. Bush's presidential library in College Station, Texas, last weekend, Bush reaffirmed that position. During the interview with “Fox News Sunday,” Bush argued that those who come into the country illegally generally do so because they have no other means to provide for their families – which makes it more of an “act of love” than a felony.

He also characterized national politics as “pretty crazy right now,” adding he would not be able to run a campaign for the presidency “joyfully” – something he tied closely to the viability of running with a “hopeful, optimistic message.”

Related: The Brain Trusts Behind the 2016 GOP Hopefuls

Karl Rove, former political guru to George W. Bush, and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, mused that Jeb’s “Bulworth” moment might be demonstrating that he’s been out of the mix for too long. Conservative columnist Byron York suggested that the “mud-fight-averse” Jeb “just doesn’t seem like a politician in top fighting shape.”

Bush said he would decide whether to enter the presidential sweepstakes by the end of this year, intensifying speculation over what he will do.

“He’s wrestling with the idea of running for president and he understands it could be uncomfortable,” said Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report. “He knows where the party needs to go on some of these issues, both substantively and symbolically. But I don’t think he yet knows how to get the party there or whether the party is willing to go there.”

Rothenberg said he assumes that Bush, in the end, will not enter the race, in part because of family concerns but also the former governor’s seeming distain for the grinding pace and effort of a national campaign.

“It’s a very public kind of sighing,” Rothenberg said. “He sighs a lot. You get the sense he would like to be president. He thinks he would be a good president. It’s the process of getting from here to there that’s the problem for him.”

Craig Shirley, a political analyst and Ronald Reagan biographer, said that Jeb Bush, if he runs, must cope with a GOP “suffering from multiple personality disorder and [a party that] only agrees on opposing Obama.” 

Related: Is the Conventional Wisdom on Latino Voters Wrong? 

“As far as having the fire in his belly, given the competitive nature of the Bush family, my guess it is part of his DNA,” Shirley said Wednesday. “I don’t know if he will run, but I think he should run, if only to force the needed debate in the Republican Party.” 

Whit Ayres, a Republican consultant, noted that nothing Bush said over the weekend was appreciably different from past positions he has taken. And his call for comprehensive immigration reform merely reflects the reality that whichever individual the Republicans put up for president in 2016 will have to advocate major reforms.

“Despite all of the wailing and gnashing of teeth about immigration reform [by conservatives]  . . . the Republican candidate for president in 2016 will be in favor of immigration reform of one sort or another. Bush will not be out of sync with the rest of the Republican field” if he decides to run, Ayres said. 

Ayres and a few others refused to speculate on whether Bush will run. 

“Only Bush can answer that,” said Larry J. Sabato, University of Virginia political scientist. “No one beyond his family could possibly know. . .  The guessing game is pointless. We'll find out when they decide.”

Maureen Mackey of The Fiscal Times contributed reporting. 

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