Jeb Bush will not be ignored.
He is releasing a provocative book on immigration this week, addressing conservative leaders next week and is brutally outspoken in an interview with USA TODAY about the self-inflicted wounds he thinks cost Republicans a winnable presidential race in 2012. In the process, he says, the GOP managed to sour its standing with fast-growing demographic groups that should be natural allies.
The former two-term governor of Florida -- the son of one president and the brother of another -- argues Republicans will "doom" their national electoral prospects for the future unless they forge a new approach to immigration and a more open attitude toward immigrants. At the moment, Republicans project an angry tone "that says, 'I'd love to have your vote but you can't be on my team,'" he says. "Man, just close your eyes and listen. There is not a lot of positive messaging going on."
Bush is even more critical, almost contemptuous, of President Obama on the immigration issue, calling the adminstration's decision last week to release some illegal immigrants from detention because of automatic budget cuts "deplorable" and describing Obama's record on the issue as cynical and partisan.
"Leaders lead, they don't divide; they don't create a climate that is poisonous," he says. "And the president is a great campaigner. Fantastic campaigner. Great. OK, we've got that established, that fact. But the campaign is over, and he's still in campaign mode."
So Bush must be preparing to run for president in 2016, right?
Not even going to think about it until next year, he insists, then groans when asked why, in that case, he signed up to deliver a featured address at the high-profile Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) next week outside Washington.
"That's a good question," he says, shooting an exaggerated glare in the direction of some aides. "It's because a lot of people urged me to do it." He downplays expectations for the speech -- "I'm going to be exhausted" -- and praises other Republicans who seem to be considering presidential runs, including fellow Floridian Sen. Marco Rubio.
But Bush, 60, also does nothing to deny his own presidential ambitions. He sat out last year's contest despite the urging of those who saw him as the only figure who could jump in late, unite the party and effectively challenge Obama. Instead, he watched Mitt Romney lose.
Could he have won? "Absolutely," Bush says. "I admire Mitt Romney but he got himself in a box on this issue."
"This issue" refers to immigration, including Republican demands for tougher border security and Romney's inartful suggestion of "self-deportation" by illegal immigrants living in the United States. In the end, Obama carried Hispanic and Asian-American voters by more than 3-1.
Since the election, the political imperative in both parties to act on immigration prompted Bush and co-author Clint Bolick to speed up publication of Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution by two months so it might help shape the debate on Capitol Hill. In the 274-page book, they outline a prescription on immigration that is likely to raise some hackles on both sides.
At odds with many conservatives, they support establishing a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants now in the U.S. without setting preconditions on improvements in border security. At odds with many liberals, that path to legal status wouldn't include citizenship for those who arrived in the United States as adults.
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