Maybe, after all the gushing about his policy chops, strong executive record and ability to broaden the appeal of conservative Republicans, Jeb Bush isn't ready for the national stage.
Certainly anyone watching the clumsy kickoff of his book tour this week — where he pushed the 2016 presidential door wide open — had to acknowledge that his political skills are a bit rusty six years after leaving Florida's Governor's Mansion.
It's one thing to make an off-hand comment that requires backpedaling or clarification on a hot-button issue. It's another to co-author a book on a controversial topic then make a carefully planned publicity tour that prompts much of the political world to question not only where you stand but what your motives are.
A series of national interviews this week made Bush look like a cross between Mitt Romney — flip-flopper — and Rick Perry — having to walk back what he wrote in his own book.
Bush used to support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but wrote in his new book, co-authored by Clint Bolick, that he now only supports a pathway to legal residency for illegal immigrants currently living in America.
"It is absolutely vital to the integrity of our immigration system that actions have consequences — in this case, that those who violated the laws can remain but cannot obtain the cherished fruits of citizenship," he and Bolick wrote in Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution. "To do otherwise would signal once again that people who circumvent the system can still obtain the full benefits of American citizenship. . . . A grant of citizenship is an undeserving reward for conduct that we cannot afford to encourage."
Within hours, pundits were speculating about Bush trying to position himself to the right for the next Republican presidential primary. Members of the bipartisan group of senators working on an immigration reform package that includes a path to citizenship complained about Bush undercutting their work, and Democrats ridiculed him.
The self-assured reformer likes to be on the cutting edge of Republican thinking. This week, on an issue close to his heart, Bush found himself trying to catch up to other Republicans in Washington.
He hastily clarified that the new book did not fully represent his view since it was written before Republicans in Washington — including his protege, Sen. Marco Rubio — had started making progress on their immigration proposal.
As his publicity tour continued, Bush, 60, explained that he could be comfortable with a path to citizenship or legal residency, so long as neither encouraged illegal immigration.
"Today the only path to come to this country other than family reunification is to come illegally. We need to create another category of legal immigration where there is actually a line. So if you could create that through a path to citizenship I would support that," he told CNN.
The ex-governor is no waif unaccustomed to rough-and-tumble politics, but as governor he could be peevish dealing with the Florida press corps' pointed questions.
If he does run for president, the scrutiny, second-guessing, parsing and psycho-analyzing will be exponentially more intense. His turn in the spotlight offered barely a taste of what would be in store.
NBC's political blog "First Read" put it well: "Here's something to remember about Bush: He hasn't run a race since 2002 (before Facebook, Twitter, and more partisan media). And the backlash he's received in the past 24 hours could either convince him that he doesn't have the stomach for a run, or it could steel him for what to expect over the next three and a half years."
Still, Bush is a giant in the Republican Party and would be the instant front-runner should he decide to run for president. He and his family have a vast fundraising network across the country, and his statement that he will decide after 2013 ensures many key money-raisers will stay on the sidelines until he does.
He is in some respects the embodiment of what's lacking in the GOP today: a forward-looking proponent of big, new ideas; a bilingual conservative with a proven record of appealing to Hispanic voters; and a true conservative who manages to appeal to moderate, swing voters.
Of course, there is that last name, that blessing and curse. The Bush name leads many Republicans nationally to make assumptions about Jeb Bush that don't hold water to those of us who watched him in Florida. It's amazing how many conservative activists and even Republican elites outside of Florida view him as a squishy moderate not to be trusted.
Craig Shirley, the conservative Ronald Reagan biographer, was apoplectic about Bush speaking at next week's Conservative Political Action Conference.
"Now the anti-Reagan establishment clamors to attend CPAC. This year, CPAC organizers have chosen as a featured speaker former governor Jeb Bush — whose family has made a career of opposing or attacking the true meaning of Reaganism. A Bush speaking at the Reagan dinner is for True Believers mind-boggling," Shirley wrote on Townhall.com.
Jeb Bush is probably better positioned than anyone to win the Republican nomination in 2016, but he has a lot of introducing to do. In the end, don't be surprised if he concludes the role of Republican elder statesman is more enticing than Republican candidate.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]