Striking a tone than set him apart from the more strident rhetoric of the 2012 Republican contenders, Bush argued that the future of the Republican Party could hinge on enhancing cooperation between the parties. He praised work in the Senate on immigration reform, as well as Obama's recent moves.
In a speech that touched on energy education, and illegal immigration at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Bush spoke at length about the toxic climate in Washington. He contrasted the rancor of the past few years with the style of historic figures like Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose "forceful hands-on leadership," he said, produced historic civil rights legislation. "The stories about Johnson grabbing people by the shoulders and getting right in their grill to make them realize how important it was to get things done was the kind of leadership that we need to see today," he said.
He paid tribute to Reagan for "embracing his adversaries," invoking the former president's friendship with Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill. What both men deplored most "was stalemate. ... That's pretty refreshing if you think about it in the context of today," he said to applause.
Turning to the current White House, Bush said to laughter that he was "excited that President Obama seems to have changed course in the last three days."
"I'm sincere about this," he continued after letting the laughter subside for a beat. "It seems now he's invited Republicans for the first time to dinner - 12 senators and the president discussing, without press conferences before and without much comment afterward, to see what each side has and what their aspirations are.
"This is a change that I think we should encourage-whether it's motivated for all sorts of reasons that we don't understand or not. Ronald Reagan would have done that. George Bush would have done that. And for our country to be successful, we have to put aside some of this vitriol that exists and begin to recognize that just because the other side does not have our views, it does not mean they are not motivated (by) love for country.
"We have to get to a different place where we can find broader consensus based on principles. That's how we will win."
Bush is hardly the first politician to call for stronger cooperation between Washington's warring parties; voices from both sides of the aisle have called for greater comity in Washington. But while those calls usually look fondly back to Reagan's era, the capital was not nearly as polarized then as it has been during Obama's tenure-or was, for that matter, under Bush's brother, George W. Bush. And his use of Johnson's leadership tactics left out the brutal nature of that Democrat's use of his power to push his agenda through Congress.
Bush has been enveloped in controversy this week as he promoted his new book, "Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution," which outlines his plan to overhaul the nation's immigration system. His advocacy in the book for a path to legal status for the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants-rather than a path to citizenship-was viewed as a position change from his past statements, and one that undermined bipartisan efforts underway in the Senate.
His position put him to the right of several of Republican senators, including his protege, Marco Rubio of Florida, who are trying to craft legislation that would include a citizenship component.
Bush softened his position during several interviews this week-telling Chuck Todd, the host of MSNBC's "The Daily Rundown," that he would not stand in the way of a path to citizenship and that he would leave it to others to figure out the details of a compromise.
He made no reference to the controversy and broke no new ground on the immigration issue during his lecture at the Reagan Library on Friday. Instead, he simply reiterated his position that creating a path to legal status was the preferable approach.
Bush has been coy in recent weeks about whether he plans to run for president as his father and brother did before him. He told NBC's Matt Lauer that he wouldn't definitely rule out a run in 2016 but wasn't "going to declare today either."
One of his three questioners in the audience in Simi Valley tried to prod him on that front, reminding Bush that when he had signed her copy of his book before his speech, she had asked him, "Are you going to save us?"
"That's the question?" Bush quipped from behind the lectern, as the audience laughed.
Bush tried for an artful dodge, stating that Americans are so angry and frustrated that they have begun to force changes on the political system. After years spent trying to block Obama's agenda, the Republican Party, he said, is seeing "the need for a more positive, proactive approach message-not just to be against things, but to go back to the days where interesting ideas were developed and advocated, where reform was at the heart of what we believed."
"If we do that part, then the country is going to be saved by the American people, not by an aspiring elected official, or one that might ponder it later on," he said. " We can't wait until 2016 to change the direction of the country, it has to start now."
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