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Bush in the Wilderness

A Romney loss, of course, would put the GOP in considerably more disarray than the Bush family. Jeb avoids characterizing the Republican Party today, instead looking to some unnamed future: “The GOP should be the GSP, the Grand Solutions Party,” he says. “It should be about solutions, not talking points. You look at the governors and you see the future of the party.”

James Baker says Jeb Bush could well be that governor—if he can contend with a post-Bush party: “I would suggest to you that if Obama is reelected, which—I hope it doesn’t happen, but if he’s reelected—I think Jeb might very well decide to do something in 2016. But, of course, he will have to get out there and put his hat in the ring and beat people like [Paul] Ryan and [Rick] Santorum.”

And there’s the rub: Can the Republican Party embrace a moderate again? Since leaving office, Jeb has become distinctly less conservative. In the past, he was a pro-gun, pro-life, pro–death penalty hard-liner who described himself as a “hang-’em-by-the-neck conservative.” But Jeb’s recent friendship with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a critic of the tea party, has seemed to crystallize a shift toward a more moderate approach. In recent years, the two have become political allies, simpatico on education and immigration, and frequent golf partners in Florida and New York. Bush now serves on the board of directors at the Bloomberg Family Foundation, and Bloomberg L.P. hosted panel discussions at the GOP convention featuring both Jeb Bush and his son, George P. Bush.

“It’s the opposite of the reality show that was put on during the Republican primaries,” says Steve Schmidt, McCain’s campaign manager in 2008. “At a very serious time, when so much of the dialogue on the right has been frivolous and ludicrous, you have a person who is talking about the challenges of the time we live in.”

Jeb has already begun to test the balance between the demands of the tea party and the need to establish himself as a serious person. He has forcefully sponsored the career of Senator Marco Rubio in Florida, the Cuban-American tea-party superstar who serves as a kind of surrogate who can bolster Bush’s conservative credentials while also emphasizing his key talking point of capturing the Hispanic vote in 2016 and beyond. Jeb has also been careful about protecting his reputation for seriousness. In July, Bush attended a meeting at ultrasecret Bohemian Grove, the private California club where politicians and industrialists powwow in the woods once a year. Jeb was “greeted like a rock star,” according to the Florida donor who invited him. But when the Koch brothers, the financiers behind Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit that has funded tea-party causes, invited Jeb Bush to their camp for lunch, Bush turned them down—for an education symposium.

Jeb, too, is setting himself up to be a uniter, not a divider. “Things ebb and flow,” he tells me in Tampa. “To be successful, we have to offer concrete solutions to problems rather than taking positions. And the party that figures out how to do that will gain the majorities.”

And he is clearly building something that looks like a platform. “We can tout our exceptionalism,” he says, “but our exceptionalism is increasingly not for everybody in the country, and it’s changing who we are as a nation, and it’s having an impact on all of us, not just the people lagging behind. Immigration is as much about the American experience and the values we share, and a lot more about economics than it is about politics.”

He certainly sounds like a man running for something. He also sounds like a very different Bush. “I use the analogy of Monty Python, the movie,” says Bush of the current GOP immigration problem, “where the guy is protecting the log across the little creek. ‘It’s just a flesh wound.’ We’re competing with ninjas, you know, guys with big, sharp knives, and we have no weapon, and we’re playing like we’re fighting them, and we get an arm cut off—‘Oh, it’s just a flesh wound’—and we’re down to the trunk.”

In truth, Jeb Bush may never return to politics, especially if issues surrounding his wife and daughter remain prohibitive. But there are more Bushes in the wings: Jeb’s own sons, George P. Bush and Jeb Jr., both of whom appeared in Tampa on panels. Jeb Jr. has been floated as a congressional candidate in Florida. And with his father’s guidance, George P., age 36, has been assembling pieces for a political run of his own—in Texas, 2014.

George P. Bush, whose grandfather famously referred to him and his siblings as “the little brown ones” in the eighties, says he cannot escape the family name, even though he tried at first. “It’s quintessentially Bush to establish your own identity,” he says, “but in the eyes of others it’s viewed as something larger than that in terms of having the name. I feel like I can kind of be myself, but embrace who I am as a Bush.” As is Bush custom, George P. has been establishing his fortune, first in private equity doing real-estate deals, and now investing in the energy sector—just like Grandpa. Like his grandfather, George H.W. Bush, he served in the Navy, doing a six-month tour in Afghanistan under a pseudonym to protect his security. He is head of pacs trying to draw young people and Hispanics into the party, and this August, he agreed to be the deputy finance chair of the Texas GOP—an echo of how his father entered into politics before running for office. Like his father, he has also thrown his support behind a Hispanic tea partyer—Ted Cruz, who is running for Senate in Texas this fall.