Jeb Bush is purposely poking the Republican base in the eye. Why?

Jeb Bush's "act of love" comments about immigration over the weekend drew massive headlines with some conservatives criticizing him for his latest apostasy on the issue.


Jeb Bush. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)

But, it's the lead-up to Bush using the phrase "act of love" that's actually the really important part of what he said.  Here it is with our bolding added:

There are means by which we can control our border better than we have. And there should be penalties for breaking the law. But the way I look at this -- and I'm going to say this, and it'll be on tape and so be it. The way I look at this is someone who comes to our country because they couldn’t come legally, they come to our country because their families -- the dad who loved their children -- was worried that their children didn’t have food on the table. And they wanted to make sure their family was intact, and they crossed the border because they had no other means to work to be able to provide for their family. Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family. I honestly think that that is a different kind of crime that there should be a price paid, but it shouldn’t rile people up that people are actually coming to this country to provide for their families.

Jeb Bush knew exactly what he was doing.  He knew that calling for a different standards for immigration depending on why the person entered the country would make conservatives' blood boil. (He basically said as much.) This was no slip of the tongue or off-message riff from a politician who has been out of the game for a while.  This was calculated.

And, it's not the first time recently that Bush has purposely poked the GOP base in the eye on an issue near and dear to them.  He has been outspoken in support for Common Core, a series of education standards, that many conservatives loathe. Here's Bush on Common Core last month:

Let me tell you something. In Asia today, they don’t care about children’s self esteem. They care about math, whether they can read – in English – whether they understand why science is important, whether they have the grit and determination to be successful.  You tell me which society is going to be the winner in this 21st Century: The one that worries about how they feel, or the one that worries about making sure the next generation has the capacity to eat everybody’s lunch? 

Why is Bush going at his party's base on two such hot-button issues?  We have three theories.

1. He believes it.  This is the line that Bush loyalists are shopping. Jeb isn't like other politicians. He doesn't play the D.C. game. He says what he thinks and doesn't care about the consequences.

2. He's throwing up trial balloons. Every time he talks about running for president -- he did it again over the weekend -- Jeb makes clear that he would want to do so "joyfully" and not get into a mudfight.  While we tend to think that's impossible given the modern process of running for president, it's possible that what Jeb is doing with his statements on immigration and Common Core is seeing just how negatively those sorts of proposals are received and how much blowback he gets on them from the right.  If it's less than he expected, maybe he convinces himself he could run without having to get down and dirty with his rivals for the nomination.

3. He's inoculating himself. Maybe Jeb has already decided he wants to run -- or he's strongly leaning that way.  If he has, then making clear his support for Common Core and a more lenient national immigration policy now might well be a way to insulate himself from charges later on in the process that he is insufficiently conservative.  You can imagine Bush in a primary debate sometime in late 2015 saying something like this: "My position is long held.  Now, not everyone will agree with me but my thoughts on the issue are born of conviction not political positioning."  While that answer won't convince hard core immigration opponents, it does have the potential to defuse the passion around the issue for others.

Jeb Bush is the prime mover in the GOP race. He acts and other candidates -- with the possible exceptions of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul -- react.  So, watch what he says -- and doesn't. Always.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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