Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, long thought to be among the most ardent immigration reform proponents on the right, threw supporters and critics for a loop when Monday when he said on the Today show that any path to citizenship would “violate the rule of law,” an argument used with gusto by immigration exclusionists to oppose comprehensive reform.

Jeb Bush
Jeb Bush: Angling for 2016? (Associated Press)

He argued, “I think there has to be some difference between people who come here legally and illegally. It is just a matter of common sense and a matter of the rule of law. If we’re not going to apply the law fairly and consistently, we’re going to have another wave of illegal immigrants coming into the country.” But isn’t the same true just of naturalization? The premise of immigration reform is that we currently have a lawless system. By making those who came here illegally pay a penalty and go to the back of the line while also securing the border, we wind up with a system that is enforceable and humane.

Bush’s reversal created headaches for Republicans in the Gang of 8 and other reformers who have gone out on a limb. And of course Democrats will never accept anything less than some pathway (however long) to citizenship. It is not clean whether Bush wanted to create a tempest, but he may have set back the cause with which he’s long been associated. As a practical matter, under Bush’s system we would then be creating two tiers of green cards, itself a verification and enforcement issue.

Because the position shift and the logic behind it are (to be generous) surprising, political observers unsurprisingly suspect Bush may be angling for a spot in the 2016 campaign, sliding in to the right of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who went into the belly of the conservative beast pushing for a pathway to citizenship. (Rubio’s office did not return my request for comment.) In the same interview as his immigration statement, Bush left the door wide open to a 2016 run. (“That’s way off into the future.”)

It is not clear whether he intended to throw a monkey wrench into the process, or whether it will have a disruptive effect. It would be a supreme, unfortunate irony if the issue on which Bush staked much of his reputation proved to be the undoing of the nascent reform effort. As for Bush, he also risks pleasing neither immigration exclusionists nor reformers. Basically, he has succeeded in confusing nearly everyone who cares about the issue.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.