Over the last 40 years, a good deal of hope the GOP has had in winning over Latino voters was associated with someone named Bush. And if you watch Jose Diaz-Balart’s interview with Jeb Bush on Telemundo, you’ll see that isn’t likely to change in 2016. Jeb Bush's seamless ability to articulate his positions in Spanish offer Latinos commonalities that have previously gone untested in such a broad space as a presidential election for the Republican Party. The shallow marketing that typifies GOP outreach efforts now has unprecedented potential with Jeb. Beyond his wife, Columba, who was born in Mexico, he has a long history of family involvement that could transcend the limitations of Republican outreach.
Jeb's father, George Herbert Walker Bush was a war hero and successful oil businessman who started his political career in Harris County, Texas in the 1960’s. He went on to be the Chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1973, where he announced the first institutional attempt to integrate Latinos into the GOP with the Spanish Speaking Advisory Committee to the RNC. That committee would later turn into the Republican National Hispanic Assembly.
Seven years later in 1980, during a primary debate between George HW Bush and Ronald Reagan, both candidates were asked what should be done about illegal immigration. What followed was a discussion between the two GOP candidates that would not even be recognizable in a Democratic debate, much less a Republican debate. Rather than the familiar race to the bottom common in today’s GOP discussions over immigration, the two Republicans grappled over which could demonstrate more empathy for immigrants.
It is well known today that the last big piece of immigration legislation was signed by Ronald Reagan, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which put millions of immigrants onto the path to becoming full-fledged members of society. George HW Bush was the Vice President at the time and would later extend IRCA as President with the Immigration Act of 1990.
During the 1992 Republican National Convention, Jeb’s teenage son and current Texas General Land Office Commissioner George P. Bush made a short speech and ended with a fist in the air declaring, “Viva Bush!”
However, what followed was almost a decade of Republican hostility towards immigrants, beginning with California’s nefarious Proposition 187, which attempted to create a statewide citizenship confirmation system.
When George W. Bush, Jeb’s brother, became President he was the last Republican to seriously compete for Latino voters, having won 40% of the Latino vote in 2004. George W. Bush was the first to record his weekly radio address in Spanish and his first State dinner was with Mexico’s Vicente Fox, where he said, “This is not only a state dinner, it's like a family gathering. The most important ties between your country and mine, Mr. President, go beyond economics and politics and geography. They are the ties of heritage, culture and family. This is true for millions of Mexican and American families, including my own.”
At the conclusion of President Fox’ visit President Bush said, “I know there are some in this world and our country who want to build walls between Mexico and the United States. I want to remind people, fearful people build walls. Confident people tear them down.”
Several days later, on September 11, terrorists made this promise a political impossibility, but it is nevertheless the Bush family that has provided the GOP with the most consistent message of openness to Mexico and to immigrants, and his current acknowledgement of anti-brown bias in society could help start a genuine discussion about the problems that afflict Latino families, such as the rigors of multi-status households, the rising costs of education, and police reform.
The weight of history and the Republican tendencies to lean on Southern Strategy tactics for electoral gain will hang heavily around the neck of any GOP candidate as the party confronts the demographic realities of the country. But if there is a candidate who can come to Latinos within the GOP from a position of history, for good or bad, his name will continue to be Bush unless someone else rises to the occasion. Unfortunately, if history is any indicator, this doesn't look very likely.