Carlson: Jeb's time may still come

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Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. Email: mcarlson3@bloomberg.net.

No one would blame Jeb Bush for feeling that time, or his party, has passed him by.

He could have run for president 12 years ago but didn't. Four years ago, as the United States was suffering from a virulent case of Bush fatigue, he wisely decided again not to run. He made the same choice this year, and sternly brushes away any speculation that he could be the Republican vice presidential nominee.

Yet whatever his political aspirations or missed opportunities, Jeb is remarkably sunny. He will always be defined, and define himself, as a son and sibling. "Anytime I talk about my brother or dad, don't expect me to be an observer," he told a group of reporters convened Monday in New York by Bloomberg View. "I love them."

It fell to Jeb to shepherd his older brother George W. into the presidency in 2000. As it was, Jeb was governor of Florida, the state that decided the election. To criticism that he was too close to the situation to be neutral, he said he couldn't have recused himself from "my constitutional duties." Nor could he have recused himself, he said, "of being my brother's brother."

To listen to Jeb Bush is to hear a man who has crossed to the other shore -- at least for now. On the question of whether he could be president, he's philosophical. "There's a window of opportunity in life," he had earlier told Charlie Rose, acknowledging that 2012 "was probably my time." On Monday he had criticism for everyone, although he undoubtedly knew that the assembled journalists would shout out only his critique of his own party.

He was right. On Tuesday, he tweeted a clarification of his remark that Ronald Reagan and his father "would have a hard time" being elected as Republicans today. "The point I was making yesterday is this: The political system today is hyperpartisan. Both sides are at fault."

He said Obama could have been "transcendent," as he promised, if he focused less on politics and more on problem-solving, such as the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan: "Had he embraced something like that," Bush said, "this election would be very different today."

He faulted both Obama and his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, for their policies on immigration. "The president says, 'Oh great, we have another election cycle to use this as a wedge issue,'" Bush said. "And Republicans say, 'Border control is the only organizing principle.'" He gives Romney a grade of "Needs Improvement" because "America is a more generous country than one that would punish a 4-year-old whose parents brought him here." Unlike most members of his party, Bush supports the Dream Act, which would give that child a path to citizenship. "I do feel a little out of step with my party on this," he said.

Unfair as it may be, it's hard to resist comparing Jeb with one of his party's most prominent members: his brother.

Jeb was the Good Brother who made his fortune in business before running for office, as his father advised, and climbed the party ladder in the ultimate swing state. George was the late-blooming cut-up who found religion and renounced alcohol the morning after his 40th birthday, got rich in a sweetheart deal, and was anointed by party elders to run for governor of Texas. In 1994, Jeb lost his first campaign for governor. George won.

Jeb won in 1998, but by then George was already being mentioned for the presidency. When George outpaced his brother and announced his campaign in 1999, Barbara Bush said, "Can you believe it?"

It might be a stretch to say George couldn't have become the 43rd president if Jeb hadn't been the 43rd governor of Florida. It's not a stretch to say that Jeb could have run this time but for George W.'s presidency. According to a CNN poll released last week, George W. Bush is the most unpopular living ex-president.

This unpopularity will fade over time as the hazy gauze that descends on most former presidents shrouds 43's record. Perhaps by 2016, it will have proceeded far enough along that Jeb Bush may yet have his presidency.