Is Jeb Bush a Republican Obama?

The GOP may have found its own candidate for the age of fluidity represented—and accelerated—by the presidency of Barack Obama.

President Obama shakes hands with Jeb Bush at Miami Central Senior High School in 2011. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Margaret Thatcher famously said that her greatest success as a politician was the rise of Tony Blair to lead a party he called New Labour: “We forced our opponents to change their minds.” As yet, Barack Obama can make no similar boast. Just the opposite: He radicalized his Republican opponents, and empowered most those who agreed with him least. With the presidential campaign of Jeb Bush, Obama can finally glimpse Thatcher-style success. Here, at last, is an opponent in his own image.

What can the son and brother of a president, grandson of a senator, and great grandson of the founder of the Walker Cup have in common with the son of a failed Kenyan politician? Look beyond the biography to the psychology.

Unlike his more guarded elder brother, Jeb Bush talks openly and candidly about himself. (For the record, I served as a special assistant to President George W. Bush for economic speechwriting from 2001 to 2002.) Of course, there are limits to candor. Jeb Bush has spent almost all of the past 20-plus years either in public office or in pursuit of it. He understands self-presentation and is adept at it: There is artfulness in his artlessness.

Yet when a man speaks for the record as often as has Jeb Bush, he deposits there enough material to learn something interesting about the man he is, rather than the boy he was.

Jeb Bush will tell you that, thanks to his marriage to his Mexican-born wife, he is bicultural. Here he is speaking at New York’s 92nd Street Y in November 2013:

I’m bicultural—maybe that’s more important than bilingual. For those who have those kinds of marriages, appreciating the culture of your spouse is the most powerful part of the relationship. Being able to share that culture and live in it has been one of the great joys of my life. We chose Miami to live because it is a bicultural city. It’s as American as any, but it has a flair to it that is related to this bicultural feeling. I wanted my children to grow up in a bicultural way.

While modestly disavowing bilingualism, Jeb Bush does speak Spanish readily. (His wife, reportedly, has not become equally comfortable in English.) His three children speak both English and Spanish.

As Jeb Bush himself notes, there is a Bush family tradition of moving away from the culture into which one is born, to plunge into another. George H.W. Bush, born to a family of Northeastern grandees, reinvented himself as Sunbelt conservative. George W. Bush, born in New Haven, Connecticut, was the only member of the next generation of Bush brothers not born in Texas, and yet became the most Texan of them all. Jeb Bush moved away first from Texas, and then from his family’s patrician identity as White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

I’ve actually converted to Catholicism … I’m whatever a W-A-S-C would be. I’m a proud Catholic and a converted one, principally because this was the faith of my wife, and I wanted our children to grow up in a non-mixed marriage. So … no longer a WASP.

His family story and his relocation to Miami, a gateway to Latin America, have focused Jeb Bush’s attention on the topic of immigration. Listen to hours of his comments on public policy, and it quickly becomes overwhelmingly apparent that this is the public policy issue he cares about by far the most. Jeb Bush will often list three-point and four-point plans to get America moving again. But when he does so, it is the immigration point that seems almost always to energize him most. He even published a book on the subject in 2013, coauthored with Clint Bolick, a well-known libertarian lawyer.

In “Immigration Wars,” Bush and Bolick recommend four major changes to US immigration law:

1) a gradual tightening of eligibility for family unification immigration;

2) tougher enforcement of immigration law in future, especially for visa overstayers;

3) a pathway to legality for the currently illegal;


4) a big surge in migration by skilled workers.

In interviews, however, Bush tends to touch lightly on the first two recommendations. It’s the latter two recommendations that most engage him. Please notice, for example, that the single most controversial of his remarks on immigration—presenting illegal immigration as an “act of love” in 2014—emerged during a discussion of enforcement. Even as he urged action against those who broke the law, Bush wanted to bracket his deeper sympathy for those who break it:

The way I look at this—and I’m going to say this, and it will be on tape, and so be it—is someone who comes to our country because they couldn’t come legally, because a dad who loved their children was worried that their children didn’t have food on the table, and wanted to ensure that their family remained intact … and they crossed the border because they had no other means to work to be able to provide for their family: Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love, it’s an act of commitment to your family. I honestly think that is a different kind of crime. There should be a price paid, but it shouldn’t rile people up that there are people coming to our family to provide for their families.

Bush added that he thought such migrants could also “make a great contribution to our country if we organized ourselves in a better way.” That national-interest concern seemed very much a secondary thought—and the whole discussion of enforcement in general seemed subordinated to the larger message of urgency in favor of more and wider immigration than the country receives now. It’s a point he’s made on other occasions, albeit in somewhat-less quotable language.

Jeb Bush’s enthusiasm for immigration, even when the immigrants are unskilled, even if they break the law, goes so deep that he even sometimes ventures to suggest that the personal characteristics of immigrants are to be preferred over those of the native-born. Here for example is an informal Jeb Bush speaking to a friendly interviewer, National Review’s Jay Nordlinger, early in 2014. “If we’re going to grow at 4% a year, we have to have young, aspiring people be able to create dynamic activity. And we can’t do that with our existing demographics.”

Bush seems to have something more in mind than just the the familiar (if overstated) claim that immigration can counter the aging of the population. He seems to think that there is some quality in the immigrants themselves that is more enterprising—more dynamic to use his favorite term—than native-born Americans. This is not only a positive judgment on the immigrants themselves. It is also a negative judgment on native-born Americans.

This belief is premised both on a positive judgment about immigrants—and on an implicit assessment of American society as it exists today. Jeb Bush delivered an elaborated form of that negative assessment in a 2013 speech to the Faith and Freedom conference in Washington DC:

Immigrants create far more businesses than native-born Americans over the last 20 years. Immigrants are more fertile, and they have more intact families. They bring a younger population. The one way that we can rebuild the demographic pyramid is to fix a broken immigration system to allow for people to come, to learn English, to play by our rules, to embrace our values, and to pursue their dreams in our country with a vengeance—to create more opportunities for all of us. This is a conservative idea. If we do this, we will rebuild our country in a way that will allow us to grow. If we don’t do it, we will be in decline—because the productivity of this country is dependent on young people that are able to work hard.

On the issues, Jeb Bush and Barack Obama obviously intensely disagree. But politicians are more than walking issue clusters. Two combat veterans, two children of immigrants, two alumni of Goldman Sachs may share more—despite their disagreements on the issues—than they share with people of different backgrounds who agree with them on everything. And in this way, Jeb Bush and Barack Obama may likewise express a commonality more important than their differences over energy policy, taxes, or abortion.

Both Jeb Bush and Barack Obama are men who have openly and publicly struggled with their ambivalence about their family inheritance. Both responded by leaving the place of their youth to create new identities for themselves: Barack Obama, as an organizer in the poor African-American neighborhoods of Chicago; Jeb Bush in Mexico, Venezuela, and at last in Cuban-influenced Miami. Both are men who have talked a great deal about the feeling of being “between two worlds”: Obama, in his famous autobiography; Bush, in his speeches. Both chose wives who would more deeply connect them to their new chosen identity. Both derived from their new identity a sharp critique of their nation as it is. Both have built their campaign for president upon a deep commitment to fundamental transformation of their nation into what they believe it should be.

Twenty-first century America is a place consumed by issues of identity. More and more Americans identify themselves as “Americans-plus”—fully American, yet also partially something else; in America, but not exclusively defined by their American-ness. An older America expected that people would be all one thing or all another: black or white, male or female, American or foreign. Barack Obama excited a new generation of voters because he—like them—transcended such categories. In this latest scion of the Bush family, of all unlikely persons, the GOP may have found its own candidate for the age of fluidity represented—and accelerated—by the presidency of Barack Obama.