Interview: Jeb Bush Talks Romney, Obama, and Immigration

PHOTO: Former Florida governor Jeb Bush during the republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at a campaign event at the University of Miami, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012, in Coral Gables, Fla.Hector Gabino/AP Photo, El Nuevo Herald
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush during the republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at a campaign event at the University of Miami, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012, in Coral Gables, Fla.

As the Romney campaign makes its closing pitch to voters, it wants them to look past the man who ran in the GOP primary and at the candidate who is running now.

Take the issue of immigration, often a litmus test for any candidate wishing to win the trust of Latino voters. Romney struck a hardline position during the primary, voicing support for a "self-deportation" plan while dismissing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

But that's not the message Team Romney emphasizes now. Romney and his supporters now say he would treat immigration in a bipartisan manner.

"Actually, I think he has been cautious to not lay out plans with great specificity, knowing that there is a real range of views on what comprehensive immigration reform really is," Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said in an interview with ABC/Univision Saturday, while on a bus tour in his home state to get out the vote.

In reality, Romney's positions and the way he has spoken about the issue damaged his standing with Latino voters, and polls show that President Barack Obama is on track to win the largest share of the community's vote in 16 years. That advantage could give Obama an edge in a handful of battleground states in what has become a very close election.

But Bush, who has been one of Romney's foremost critics on his handling of immigration and his efforts to diversify his base of support to include Latinos and Asian-Americans, has a different take. He now says that Romney has improved dramatically since the Republican National Convention in August and is confident that Romney can whittle away at Obama's Latino support, especially in Florida where traditionally-Republican Cuban-American voters have given him a boost.

Whether that's the case will bear itself out on Election Day. While on his Florida bus tour, Bush spoke to Jordan Fabian about a second Obama term, Romney's plans for the White House, and if he foresees a role for himself in a Romney administration.

1. You've been on a bus tour of Florida. Are you confident that Romney is going to win the state and can he win the election without winning Florida?

I guess you could draw an electoral map where you could win the election without winning Florida. But thankfully in this particular case, I'm really confident that Gov. Romney is going to win Florida and that makes it more probable that he's going to be elected president. He'll have to win a few other states, but with 29 electoral votes it's obviously the biggest swing state.

2. It is closer in Florida, but Latino voters around the country overwhelmingly favor President Obama over Romney. What would you say to the Latino community about the impact of a second Obama term on the country?

A series of broken promises as it relates to immigration yielded nothing, basically paralysis. I think the plan all along was to use immigration as a political issue. In a second term, I just don't see immigration being a high priority for this president. So I think we will have continued stagnation in that regard.

But more important is the economic policies of the president are not yielding the robust growth that helps Hispanic communities around the country. If you look at unemployment numbers, Hispanics have been really hard hit. The tepid recovery [means] the gap has actually gotten bigger between Latinos and non-Hispanic whites. More of the same, I guess, that's what I would predict. And that's not good.

I don't necessarily think President Obama is going to win though.

3. But what's remarkable to me is the racial polarization we've seen. Does it make you concerned that Gov. Romney's coalition relies too heavily on white voters and do you think his chances of winning could be hurt by a lack of diversity?

I actually think [Romney's] gap among Latino voters and Asian voters has narrowed since the debate. Among independent voters, Gov. Romney is consistently winning by 5 to 12 percent, according to the last polls I've seen. I think he is building a coalition that would allow him to win and to govern.

I think that the electoral dynamics have changed pretty dramatically since a lot of voters got to see an unvarnished view of Mitt Romney during the debates instead of an attack ad or a filter. Sixty-seven million people at least saw him in a way that was strikingly different than what their perception was. It just helped him enormously.

4. Looking back, and I know you have spoken to this point before, do you think he could have done anything differently to better appeal to Latino voters?

The primary may have created some challenges, but he has overcome them. I've seen polls that show the Hispanic vote narrowing statewide from 75-20 [in favor of Obama] to 30. [Romney] could get to a 35 percent number in the general election nationwide. And that used to be the threshold people said was critical for his success.

A lot of these turnout models the polls are suggesting don't take into account the dramatic intensity that is on our side. Proportionally, he might not have the same percentage as they did four years ago, even though there is a larger universe of voters of Hispanic origin.

5. You think Gov. Romney will win. Looking ahead to his first term, he said in the second debate that he will get immigration reform done in his first year in office. That's the same promise Obama made in 2008. Obviously they have different views on immigration, Romney has favored self-deportation and some more and he does not support a pathway to citizenship. What do you think of Gov. Romney's immigration policies and do you think he could get a bill done during his first year?

Actually, I think he has been cautious to not lay out plans with great specificity knowing that there is a real range of views on what comprehensive immigration reform really is. I think he is putting himself in position where he could lead the country to a consensus on this.

And I think he will, actually. I've talked with him at length about this. And I think that he is open to a comprehensive review of the policies and a set of reforms that would get broad support.

The interesting thing right now is that our political system is broken. If you ask the question whether this [country] needs comprehensive immigration reform, by two to one numbers a majority of Americans believe it would be helpful. And most believe it would be quite helpful for economic reasons, which are at heart of Gov. Romney's views on immigration, which is that it could be turned into a tool we could use to sustain high economic growth.

6. When it comes down to Congress negotiating an immigration bill, do you think that Gov. Romney is willing to be flexible about what's in there as long as there are certain parameters?

I do believe that. He has made it quite clear that he would work with congressional leaders on a solution for this rather than an executive order on this like President Obama did, which does not have legal authority.

The idea that you could use a law that allows for a case-by-case review of specific immigration cases for around 200,000 people … the president doesn't have that power. Mitt Romney would be someone who would uphold the law and fight for a broader consensus on immigration reform that solves this on a long-term basis and not just over a two-year period.

7. What are the policies you see that Gov. Romney would draw the line on and refuse to support it?

I don't know. Again, I think the way to frame this is what does he support? And he supports the expansion of immigration opportunities for those who have specific skills that can help us grow our economy.

Where the challenges begin are what do you do with the people who are here illegally, and having some means by which you deal with that is where the biggest political fight is. And that is where the president has failed. President Obama had a chance with 60 senators, a majority in the House to fulfill a specific campaign promise he made, which gained him significant support in the 2008 election. And then crickets were heard. That's all we heard. Not a single bill proposed.

We went onto really important things like overspending federal government money on things that didn't jumpstart the economy and the passage of a massive healthcare bill that created a partisan divide of the likes of which we have never dealt with.

By the way, I have already voted for Mitt Romney. I know that's a shock.

8. I noticed that you have been increasing your campaigning with him in the final weeks of the race. Have you talked to Gov. Romney about whether you would have a position in his administration?

No, I haven't. I want him to get elected.

9. Would you want one?

I doubt it. I don't know, it's highly speculative. Right now the focus is on helping him as much as I can. I'm praying for him.