Agree with him or not, you have to respect Jeb Bush's honesty. On two issues, immigration and a common core in education, Bush recently went on record stating positions at odds with some powerful activists in his own party.
In a speech in Florida last week, he came out solidly for immigration reform that includes giving legal status to the 11 million illegal immigrants who are living in the U.S. now (provided they pay fines, taxes and haven't committed crimes while here) and for a common core of knowledge that children in all states should be expected to learn. This is heresy to some Republicans, but just plain common sense to others, including those of us who consider ourselves Reagan Republicans.
But the most remarkable thing about his statement was its refreshing candor. He knew his remarks would be used against him -- and he didn't let that stop him. When so many politicians pander to prevailing opinion, it's refreshing to have someone refuse to play that game.
In terms of substance, Bush was following President Ronald Reagan's example.
On immigration, Reagan not only granted amnesty to some four million illegal immigrants in 1986, but he also was a longtime critic of those who wanted to shut our borders. In a 1977 radio address -- which, unlike most of today's politicians, he actually wrote -- Reagan said the following: "It makes one wonder about the illegal alien fuss. Are great numbers of our unemployed really victims of the illegal alien invasion, or are those illegal tourists actually doing work our own people won't do?" he asked. "One thing is certain in this hungry world; no regulation or law should be allowed if it results in crops rotting in the fields for lack of harvesters."
On education, too, Reagan believed in tough standards that all students should be required to meet. The modern education reform movement dates back to the Reagan presidency and the 1983 report "A Nation at Risk" issued by then Education Secretary William J. Bennett. Following the report, which showed American students lagging behind their foreign peers, many states moved to adopt standards that required students to master certain math, reading and writing skills at various grade levels.
Unfortunately, the state standards were inconsistent, diffuse, sometimes poorly implemented and not rigorous enough to improve students' educational achievement. As a result, a group of education reformers, including Bush, Bennett, Gov. Chris Christie and former Gov. Mitch Daniels, endorsed a proposal put together by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers for a purely voluntary Common Core State Standards Initiative. But some on the right have decided that the whole common core idea is simply a left-wing plot to subvert local control over education and promote liberal ideology.
Bush's challenge going forward if he decides to run for president will be communicating his views in ways that win over critics. In doing so, he should take a page from Reagan's playbook.
Reagan often has been described as the Great Communicator. His effectiveness, however, was not in telling people what they wanted to hear, but in persuading them to his point of view.
When I was White House director of public liaison during Reagan's second term, we often discussed polling data during the daily senior staff meetings -- but the purpose was never to alter policy recommendations. Instead, the poll data were used to fashion effective arguments to win over those who were either neutral or skeptical about the president's policies.
This is where Jeb Bush needs some help. The next time he speaks about immigration reform, he needs to describe why it is in the interests of ordinary Americans to support immigration reform, not just why it's the compassionate, moral thing to do. And if he wants to talk about education reform, he needs to make sure his audience understands that a core curriculum is not code for liberal indoctrination and dumbed-down standards.
He needs to hone his message and repeat it as often as he can. My bet is that if he does this well, he'll win over far more people than he scares off. He has the courage to do so. Let's see if he has the stamina.