Commentary: The Republican dilemma

May 30, 2013

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush did a number of things on Mackinac Island yesterday. He managed to completely pack the Grand Hotel’s auditorium as the first major speaker of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce’s annual conference.

He made some connections for what could be—could be—a run for the presidency three years from now. He gave intelligent and well-thought out perspectives on education and immigration reform.

But he also illustrated the huge dilemma facing today’s Republican Party, especially on immigration. Bush artfully sketched out the outlines of a policy that would actively encourage more immigrants, especially those who are well-educated and have needed skills. He would take us from a policy where most immigration is done for family reunification to one based on our nation’s economic priorities. That would seem to make a lot of sense.

But not, however, to some in both parties: Democrats, who fear  immigrants will take jobs from other Americans, and Republicans who give the impression that they don’t much like some ethnic groups.

For Republicans, this perception has meant punishment at the polls. Bush noted that looked at in terms of economic and educational attainment, Asian-Americans should be voting Republican.

But Mitt Romney got only 23 percent of them, something Bush attributed to the fact that some in his party seemed to be sending minorities the message that “we want your votes, but you can’t join our club.”

Whatever you think of the Bushes, that hasn’t been true of them. Jeb Bush has spoken fluent Spanish since he was a teenager.

So does his older brother. But when, late in his presidency, George W. Bush attempted to get Congress to pass a pro-immigrant policy that would have provided a path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants, it was rejected by members of his own party.

These days, given the rise of the Tea Party, getting Republicans to pass immigration reform might be even harder.

The very idea that Bush himself could be the third member of his family to run for President is, in a way, bizarre, and illustrates another part of the GOP dilemma. Consider this: Bush’s father was the last President ever to be defeated – and badly defeated – when he ran for reelection. His brother left office eight years ago as one of the most unpopular presidents.

Even his own mother said last month “we’ve had enough Bushes.”  But other Republicans worry Jeb Bush might be their only alternative to nominating someone like Rand Paul or Ted Cruz, and a landslide defeat. But on a number of issues, Jeb Bush is out of step with his own party. That’s less so on education, where Bush preaches a gospel of choice. But it was clear he can’t be happy with the Republican legislature’s recent move to weaken tougher standards.

Nor does Bush think it is enough to just say no. “Okay, you don’t like Obamacare,” he said. “But it’s not like health care was working well before.” Republicans, he said, needed to propose an attractive alternative. They never did.

Bush praised Rick Snyder’s platform of relentless positive action. His main message, however, was that their party better come up with some positive solutions if they want to see any White House action.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflects those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.