It was the endorsement we’d all been waiting for. This week, Jeb Bush announced his support of Mitt Romney’s presidential bid and put to bed weeks of speculation over whether Bush himself was considering a late entrance into the Republican race.
While Bush’s second-half endorsement answers questions about the GOP establishment coalescing around Romney, it also raises new questions about the influence Bush will have over Romney’s campaign.
At the Hispanic Leadership Conference this January, Bush urged party leaders to tamp down their rhetoric on immigration, and admitted during a brief press availability that he did not know if then-frontrunners Romney or Newt Gingrich could win a majority of the Hispanic vote. Rather, he suggested, both could “reverse a trend” of Latino supporters detracting from the GOP.
But the most telling moment was Bush downplaying Romney’s statement that he would have vetoed the DREAM Act by suggesting that Romney had “moderated or at least amplified his views to provide a little more nuance.” How much of that moderation and amplification can be attributed to pressure from Bush? More importantly, how much more can Bush nudge Romney towards reform?
In a 2011 editorial board interview with the Washington Examiner, Romney responded to a question about immigration by saying, “I actually have a plan in mind.” He then dropped Jeb Bush’s name, saying that he’d met with him months earlier to discuss such a plan. Given the positions Romney has taken on immigration policy, in contrast with Bush’s positions on reform, it would seem that either he and Bush did not agree on much at the time of their meeting, or that Romney went into the primary with one immigration plan and came out with another.
That might explain why almost four months after saying he had an immigration plan, Romney hasn’t revealed it. Already, Democrats are pressuring Romney to unveil his proposal, suggesting that he either does not have a plan or he is reluctant to share it with voters.
“As the leading Republican candidate for president, Mitt Romney has the responsibility to inform voters about what actions he intends to take if he were elected,” said American Bridge president Rodell Mollineau in a statement.“For him to have policy proposals that he refuses to disclose is an affront to voters and a slap in the face to the democratic process. What else is he hiding?”
Even if there is time for Bush to help the Romney campaign soften their rhetoric on immigration in time to reveal a more middle-of-the-road plan, Bush will never be able to get Romney to where he wants him to be on the issue without creating or adding to the perception of Romney as a disingenuous Etch-a-Sketcher. And even if Bush was able to move Romney to common sense positions on DREAM or comprehensive reform, would Latino voters ever be able to trust that Romney wouldn’t once again reverse course?
“Mitt Romney thinks he can erase his belief that many immigrants just come to America for a ‘free deal’ and that they will ‘self-deport’ when their lives are made unpleasant,” said Bill Burton, senior strategist for Priorities USA Action. “But the reality is, we won’t let him back off his vision to make the extreme Arizona immigration law a national model.”
For Bush, endorsing Romney positions him as a team-player – but if Bush cannot get Romney to soften his rhetoric and his position on immigration, it also comes with the potential of varnishing Bush’s good standing within the Latino community. The challenge for Bush is to figure out how far he can push Romney on reform so that he can claim successful influence without exacerbating existing perceptions of Romney as a flip-flopper.