One thing everybody agrees about Jeb Bush is that he’s a smart man. He spoke this morning to reporters at Bloomberg L.P. (I was not in town, but was able to read accounts of his remarks in almost real time due to the miracle of the Internet.) Bush is clearly engaged in an effort to position himself as the next leader of the Republican Party.
To understand what Bush is saying, you need to anticipate how the party might diagnose the causes of a loss in 2012, and then you can see how he is setting himself as the cure. Bush has been publicly urging Republicans to moderate their tone toward Latinos and to embrace immigration reform. Here is the one issue where Republicans, should they lose, will almost surely conclude that they need to moderate their party stance. The Latino vote is both growing in size and seems to be tilting ever more strongly toward the Democrats, a combination that will rapidly make the electoral map virtually unwinnable. Indeed, the body language of the Romney campaign suggests it already regrets the hard-line stances on immigration it adopted during the primary.
Containing illegal immigration is a passion among the Republican voting base, but the party elite is generally either indifferent to or actively supportive of illegal immigration. (It’s a good source of cheap labor for business.) Bush, of course, speaks fluent Spanish and has a Mexican-American wife.
Other than that, Bush has largely followed the example of his brother’s 2000 campaign, offering a great deal of moderation in tone and very little in substance. This morning he spoke fulsomely on the merits of bipartisanship without committing himself to support a generalized move toward the center on anything other than immigration. In customary party fashion, he lashed President Obama for failing to fully endorse the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan, but subsequently admitted he would have opposed it as well due to its higher tax revenues.
If you try to imagine the Republican consensus after a potential losing election, it will look like this. It will recognize that its harsh partisan rhetoric turned off voters, and will urgently want to woo Latinos, while holding on to as much as possible of the party’s domestic policy agenda. And oh, by the way, the party will be casting about for somebody to lead it.