RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Jeb Bush is ending a challenging year. The son of a president and brother of a president started 2015 favored to win the Republican presidential nomination.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Bush ends the year looking differently. When campaign reporters spin out scenarios for who could win, they sometimes neglect to mention him.
What has sustained you these last few months?
JEB BUSH: Well, I've got - I'm not going to stand up and pull them out, but I have a little Jesus in my pocket that I carry with me and some rosary beads. And first and foremost, what sustains me is my faith.
INSKEEP: His faith and his belief that he could make a difference.
BUSH: The possibility of becoming president sustains me in ways that it's hard to describe.
INSKEEP: That possibility is at risk, though the former Florida governor still has money and a big goal. He wants to redirect the energies of his party. Bush talked of this in our year-end interview. He is among the Republicans who planned a new tone for this election until Donald Trump arrived. Trump spoke of walls on the border and keeping out Muslims, and many Republicans flocked to him. For Jeb Bush, the first question is - what went wrong?
BUSH: I would argue that Donald Trump is in fact a creature of Barack Obama. But for Barack Obama, Donald Trump's effect would not be nearly as strong as it is. We're living in a divided country right now, and we need political leaders, rather than continuing to divide us as both President Obama and Donald Trump do, to unite us.
INSKEEP: Your party sponsored a report in 2013. It was described as an autopsy of the election loss in 2012. One of your close advisors, I believe, was one of the authors of that report. Among the many recommendations was that the party needed to be more inclusive...
INSKEEP: ...More welcoming to people of color, and embrace comprehensive immigration reform. What if it turns out that Republican primary voters just are not willing to go there?
BUSH: Well, look, it's - I think the report is accurate for us to win the election. That was the - their point wasn't how are people feeling, you know, in the primary, their mission was how do we win? It's tough being in exile. It's lonely for now near eight years, and to imagine another eight years or four years with Hillary Clinton as president is something that is unfathomable for most Republicans. So the argument that we need to realize our demography as a nation is changing and we need to make our - we're going to have to change our principles. In fact, I think we need to reestablish them because the Conservative movement is a hopeful, optimistic movement at its best.
INSKEEP: Although aren't you in a situation where, granting that no votes have been cast, but based on the polling in 2015, very large numbers of Republican primary voters don't seem to want to be in that spot you'd like them to be in.
BUSH: Well, they want to win though. And if they have a honest appraisal of how we're going to win - we're not going to win by insulting our way to the presidency. You cannot disparage women, people of disabilities, Mexican-Americans, POWs, Muslims. It's not a strategy for victory. It's a strategy to maintain this divisive kind of culture we're in right now.
INSKEEP: One of your rivals, Ted Cruz, made a joke the other day. It was a joke that spoke, I think, to a serious point. He said that the politically correct term for illegal immigrants now was undocumented Democrats, which speaks, I think, to the Republican suspicion that this is all about registering Democrats, ultimately, making citizens of people who are likely to be Democrats. Democrats have the opposite suspicion that Republicans just want to prevent immigrants from voting. How much of the impasse here is really about that question, the question of political power in the future?
BUSH: It's an interesting point. I don't know what percentage of the gridlock can be related to that. The proposal ought to be, for a Conservative, for the people that are here illegally, a path to legal status. Not a path to citizenship, but a path out from the shadows where you pay a fine, where you learn English, where you work, where you don't commit crimes, you don't receive federal government assistance, and over an extended period of time you earn legal status. That's the answer. The answer isn't to joke, as Senator Cruz apparently did. It's to offer a proposal that will solve the problem.
INSKEEP: And if someone says to you, Governor Bush just doesn't want that person to vote, that's why he's objecting to their citizenship...
BUSH: ...I think it's a question of fairness. I think it's a question of fairness. Why should someone - it's called illegal immigration for a reason. People came here illegally. Why should people gain citizenship by coming here illegally? I just - I don't quite understand why that is such a compelling moral argument.
INSKEEP: So let me ask about an implication of that. You have argued that on immigration and so many other issues, that you are far better positioned for a general election than many of your opponents for the Republican nomination. But Hillary Clinton, if she is the nominee - and you've made it clear in your remarks you believe she will be - no matter who the Republican nominee is, she will still be able to hammer them on this issue. She'd be able to hammer you and say you're against a pathway to citizenship. Aren't you still going to be vulnerable on this in a general election?
BUSH: No, because I have a proven record as it relates to immigrants and immigration, and a tone and a leadership as governor of Florida that defies whatever the attacks will be. As it relates to my reelection effort - when I ran for it in a purple state, I got 60 percent of the Latino vote. I got more Latino votes than I got non-Latino white votes. And there's a reason for that, because I campaigned and I governed in a way that was inclusive. Hillary can talk all she was about the stuff that she wants to do, but her record of accomplishment is quite narrow. She's passed - she was a senator for eight years, I believe, and she passed - three bills became law that she sponsored. One was renaming a highway, one was naming a monument, and one was naming a post office.
INSKEEP: Are you saying you'd tell her you'd never get a pathway to citizenship anyway?
BUSH: I would tell her that I have a proven record as it relates to - I don't need to be lectured to about my commitment to the immigrant communities because I did it.
INSKEEP: I also want to ask about your family, governor, but in a different way, I think, than you've been asked about it in the past. People ask you - will you be different than your brother, how would you be different than your brother...
BUSH: ...Yeah, I have a lot of that...
INSKEEP: ...Questions like that. This is a different question. I'm thinking about the fact that the Bush name, your last name, is in political terms a brand. So can you define it for us? What is the Bush brand?
BUSH: Well, I think the Bush brand, if there is one - I'm not sure people can be created into - we use branding now kind of in a broader context than maybe we're used to. It would be integrity. It would be having a servant's heart. It would be patriotic, loving the country. And in my case, you know - look, I'm a Conservative, but I believe that conservativism needs to be applied in a hopeful, optimistic way. And I think that's another part of the Bush brand that I hope people will be reminded of, that it's a hopeful, optimistic message, not a divisive one.
INSKEEP: Governor, thanks very much.
BUSH: Yeah, happy New Year.
INSKEEP: Happy New Year to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.