By Jim Rutenberg
For the better part of three decades, there has been no more prominent family in Republican politics than the Bushes.
But tough talk about the state of the party on Monday by former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida — who went so far as to say that Ronald Reagan and his father would have a “hard time” fitting in during this Tea Party era — exhibited a growing distance between the family, which until not very long ago embodied mainstream Republicanism, and the no-compromise conservative activists now driving the party.
Speaking at a breakfast with national reporters held by Bloomberg View in Manhattan, Mr. Bush questioned the party’s approach to immigration, deficit reduction and partisanship, saying that his father, former President George Bush, and Reagan would struggle with “an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement.”
Going one better, he praised his father’s 1990 deficit-reduction deal, which drew the lasting ire of his party’s fiscal hawks for its tax increases.
Mr. Bush has always taken a path separate from those of his brother and his father, and friends said his words were those of a man free from the restraints of electoral politics. He said on CBS last week that he had no interest in being vice president to Mitt Romney — whom he has endorsed — and that while he has not ruled out a presidential run in the future, this year was “probably my time.”
But his comments gave voice to the growing drift of the party’s base from the Bush family, which has become all the more acute as this year’s Republican presidential contenders, including Mr. Romney, appeared to wipe his brother George’s eight years in the White House from their collective memory bank.
When President George W. Bush’s tenure was mentioned at all during the nominating fight, it was frequently done in a negative light, as the candidates criticized his expansion of the Medicare prescription drug benefit, the Wall Street bailout and his signature education initiative, No Child Left Behind.
But friends say it is the party’s shift away from the sort of comprehensive immigration overhaul Mr. Bush had championed during his presidency that particularly pains the Bushes, who, for all of their differences, believe the system should be more humane for hardworking and law-abiding Hispanic families — whom the Republican Party must court to assure its future success. The issue has particular resonance for Jeb Bush, whose wife, Columba, is of Mexican heritage.
“It is a Bush family belief that we have to do more with Hispanic voters,” said a friend of Jeb Bush, Ana Navarro. “But Jeb understands the Republican Hispanic dynamic better than most people do because he speaks the language, he reads and listens to the news coverage, and he lives in the community.”
During the discussion at Bloomberg View, Mr. Bush implored his party: “Don’t just talk about Hispanics and say immediately we must have controlled borders. Change the tone would be the first thing. Second, on immigration, I think we need to have a broader approach.”
He made it clear he had offered his views to Mr. Romney, who this year referred to the tough immigration law in Arizona as “a model.”
“Governor Romney has used this as a means to connect with a group of voters that were quite angry and was effective,” Mr. Bush said. “Now he’s in somewhat of a box. But I think the broader question is, how do you get out of it?”
Mr. Bush did not spare Mr. Obama from criticism, accusing him of using immigration as a “wedge issue” and of making the partisan environment worse in spite of his promises to practice a “transcendent” type of politics. “If he was a transcendent figure, which is what he ran as, I think he’s failed,” Mr. Bush said.
And he said both sides were responsible for what he described as a dysfunctional atmosphere, with Democrats and Republicans equally beholden to ideological purists.
But as the next Bush potentially in line for the presidency, his comments on his own party, offered as the general election fight heats up, drew the most attention.
Mr. Bush spent the weekend at the family summer home in Maine for his father’s 88th birthday. But it was unclear to what extent he was channeling his entire family’s view. His father and mother, Barbara, were early supporters of Mr. Romney, who has a vacation house in neighboring New Hampshire.
George W. Bush endorsed Mr. Romney, but in passing to journalists with ABC News after he gave a speech on human rights in Washington, literally as he walked into an elevator. And while some of Mr. Bush’s old political team is working for Mr. Romney, including the advertising strategists Stuart Stevens and Russ Schriefer, others are keeping their distance from the campaign.
For instance, one senior strategist and friend, Mark McKinnon, is now with the bipartisan group No Labels, which is calling on the parties to stop fighting and get to work on the nation’s most pressing problems.
“There are a lot of us still trying to put the compassion in conservatism,” Mr. McKinnon said, referring to Mr. Bush’s description of his own political brand during his presidency. Jeb Bush, he said, was speaking for “a piece of the party that’s felt pretty neglected lately.”
But others did not agree, among them Grover Norquist, the anti-taxation activist whose “no new taxes” pledge Mr. Bush’s father broke when he struck the 1990 budget deal with Democrats that raised rates — a move Mr. Bush pointed to Monday as an example of political courage.
“Jeb hasn’t run for office for 10 years,” Mr. Norquist said. “The modern Republican Party is a party that won’t raise taxes.”
It is also a party and a political environment in
which, Mr. Bush said Monday, even Reagan “would be criticized for doing the things that he did — that’s the point of the context changing.”