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Commentary

Jeb Bush's campaign book

(c) 2013, Slate
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 10:12 PM
WASHINGTON -

Whether Jeb Bush's new book can influence the debate over immigration policy remains to be seen, but the publication of "Immigration Wars" has quickened the death of the campaign book. A grateful nation thanks him. Books written by people thinking about becoming president are nearly as weightless as the press release, but because they take the shape of a respected medium, they claim more attention. Using a venerable form to peddle mush fools voters, ties down critics and enlists candidates in a protracted exercise to become even less forthcoming than they might otherwise be.

In "Immigration Wars," the former Florida governor tried to take a bold stance on a seemingly insoluble issue. Good for him, and Bush is a good candidate to inject new ideas. He has a healthy supply of at least two laudable instincts: He is willing to break with his party, which suggests an independence of mind, and he prioritizes hard-won compromise, another useful quality at a time when lawmakers in Washington seem incapable of progress.

But the book has had a rocky launch. In it, Bush wrote that he does not support a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented workers in the United States. That was a reversal of his previous support for that position. Commentators immediately interpreted this switch as a move to court conservatives in advance of a 2016 presidential run. But upon publication of the book, Bush vacillated again, returning to his previous position, saying he would support a pathway to citizenship under certain circumstances. That second head fake brings him in line with an increasingly popular position in the Republican Party, which is trying to find new ways to court Hispanic voters. Commentators immediately interpreted Bush's flip-flopping as a rerun of the types of the mistakes Mitt Romney made in the 2012 campaign. Conservative columnist John Podhoretz wrote, "Jeb Bush's clear discomfort with his own book reminds me of Charles Barkley complaining about what was in his memoir."

This is not the first time a member of the Bush family has been lost in translation. Whether Jeb Bush was trying to prepare the way for a presidential run or simply influence the debate, he has not improved his chances to do either. It's the book's fault. Potential candidates who write books are trying to hit an impossible target. They have picked a medium that expects bold declarations and truth. A book is supposed to be something above the normal prattle. But presidential campaigns do not reward bold declarations of truth. A campaign requires a book of comfortable truths, nothing too abrasive you'll have to answer for later.

We saw proof of this in the 2012 election. At the Harvard campaign manager's conference after the election, Rick Perry's campaign manager Rob Johnson told the truth about the Texas governor's 2010 book "Fed Up!" When asked for proof that Perry wasn't thinking of running for president until just before he announced in the summer of 2011, Johnson pointed to Perry's book published six months earlier. No one who was running for office would ever write a book like that, said Johnson, because the book actually delineated what Perry believed. Romney's chief strategist "fell in love," with the book, according to the Romney campaign manager, because it was such a trove of opposition material. Most damaging was Perry's claim that Social Security was a "Ponzi scheme." Romney clobbered him repeatedly with the charge.

Unlike Perry, Romney had been running for president for six years. He knew how careful he needed to be when he wrote "No Apology." There's a rule of thumb with these books: The more declarative the title, the less declarative you'll find the statements inside. True to form, the book was not a high-calorie meal, but even the first edition of "No Apology" wasn't insubstantial enough. In the original edition, Romney seemed to suggest that his Massachusetts health care plan was a model for the nation. In subsequent editions, printed after that view became toxic in Republican circles, he asserted an opposite view.

That is the problem Bush faces with his book. If his immigration book is to be considered a bold declaration of principle, then either his principles in the book are out of step with the emerging GOP consensus, or by changing his view now to keep up with that consensus, he demonstrates that he lacks principles.

If Bush simply wanted to influence the debate over immigration, he didn't really need a book. As a former governor who accomplished things in office, he has standing. But candidates need to create physical books (no e-books, please) because they allow for book signings and book parties where potential voters can gather in primary states or potentially crucial swing states. They are a useful tool, but that's not the same thing as a good book.


John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of "On Her Trail."

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