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Can Jeb Bush change the conversation on immigration in the 2016 GOP presidential primary?

Yesterday, former Florida governor Jeb Bush spoke at an event to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his father's presidency. At the event, moderated by Fox News and later broadcast in part by the channel, he mentioned both of the policy areas that he's staked his career on and differentiate him from the rest of the potential 2016 presidential candidates on the right — education and immigration reform. His comments on immigration reform were what soaked up the most real estate in the Sunday news cycle.

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"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," he said. "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."

Before he explained his thinking on deportation, Bush said, "I'm going to say this and it will be on tape and so be it." It wasn't the first time Bush had professed these views on immigration.

Last November, Bush called Iowa Rep. Steve King's rhetoric on immigration “shameful and so insulting." A conservative blogger wrote after, "If he is running in 2016 then he’s running a clinic on how to guarantee one loses the Iowa Caucus."

Bush knew his response yesterday wouldn't compel much of his party to nod along in agreement. He was right. They didn't. (Try searching "Jeb Bush" and "RINO" right now.)

On his other defining issue, Jeb Bush also has notable differences with the party writ large. While conservatives have made dismantling Common Core their education cri de coeur, Jeb Bush said yesterday that he's "totally committed" to the federal standards. "Maybe it’s stubbornness," he said,  "but I just don’t seem compelled to run for cover when I think this is the right thing to do for our country. And others have, others that supported the standards all of a sudden now are opposed to it. I don’t get it." As controversial as this opinion might be, it wasn't the one that is splashed across headlines on conservative news websites. For the most devoted conservatives, the ones that go out and vote in presidential primaries and are far less forgiving of moderation than the people who turn out in November, his stance on immigration is the most damning one.

In the 2012 presidential race, Republican presidential candidates with less-hawkish views on deportation faced a similar reaction from their party.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry said in a September 2011 debate, “If you say that we should not educate children who come into our state for no other reason than that they've been brought there through no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart. We need to be educating these children, because they will become a drag on our society.” He was quickly derided by his fellow Republican candidates on stage, and in the press.

In a November 2011 debate, Newt Gingrich said,  "I do not believe that the people of the United States are going to take people who've been here for a quarter of a century … [and] separate them from their families and expel them."I don't believe that the party that says it's the party of the family is going to say it's going to destroy families that have been here for more than a quarter of a century.

Like Bush, Gingrich knew he'd face backlash for his comments, saying he was "prepared to take the heat for saying 'let's be humane.'" It was easy to find Tea Party leaders who were disappointed by Gingrich's words. In Iowa, where the first caucus was little more than a month away, activists and politicians said Gingrich and Perry were at a steep disadvantage for breaking with the party on this issue, going so far as to say it was a "toxic" position.

No one needs a refresher on the fact that neither of these two candidates succeeded at winning the nomination.

Fast-forward back to today, and immigration reform hasn't proven much more successful in surviving on a Republican platform. A proposal advanced by House Republicans to allow some undocumented immigrants to become legal residents in the United States died a swift death in the House Armed Services Committee last week. The 2014 midterms are defined by jobs and health care, not immigration.

Despite all that, Jeb Bush isn't the only Republican eyed for 2016 who won't toe the party line on immigration. Last week, Rand Paul — who has won the presidential straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference two years in a row now — said that the party needs to "get beyond deportation to get to the rest of the issues.” 

They’re not going to care whether we go to the same church, or have the same values, or believe in the same kind of future of our country until we get beyond that. Showing up helps, but you got to show up and you got to say something, and it has to be different from what we’ve been saying.

Bush and Paul have always approached the conservative end of the party in different ways. Where Paul has never shied courting them (see CPAC straw poll), Bush has preferred to keep a distance, not even attending CPAC this year. They might both believe that sanding away at the Party until only the most passionate remain may not be the most winning of strategies, but Paul seems to have a better ability to keep the passionate while trying to invite others in. The last Washington Post/ABC News poll, released on March 23, asked respondents to say whether they would vote for a list of candidates. Twenty-three percent of conservatives said they would definitely not vote for Paul. Thirty-seven percent said the same about Bush.

On the other hand, moving far to the right to appease conservative primary voters played a role in dooming the eventual Republican presidential nominees the past two election cycles. Staying on middle ground as long as possible is a strategy the Republican Party hasn't tried in awhile. Come the end of the year, when Jeb Bush finally decides whether he wants to become the third member of his family to submit a rental application for the White House, we'll see if the always immediate uproar about "soft" immigration views on the right is something that's dying out.


"In the ‘credentials caucus,’ GOP’s 2016 hopefuls study policy and seek advisers" — Philip Rucker and Robert Costa, The Washington Post

"Hillary Clinton's Phantom Presence in 2016 Campaign Freezes Other Democrats" — Peter Nicholas, The Wall Street Journal

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.

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