Jeb Bush's complicated relationship with immigration reform appears to finally have boiled down to this: He supports a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants currently in the United States, but not citizenship.

That's newsworthy because Bush has at times been supportive of a path to citizenship — being one of the few big-name Republicans to push the party in that direction. For him to now focus on a path to legal status instead is accordingly, well, kind of important.

It's also important because relatively few Republicans are talking in those terms. For years, it's basically been citizenship or nothing.

But really, it shouldn't be. Call Bush's position a flip-flop if you want; it's still the smartest path for a Republican Party trying to get religion — and repeatedly failing — on immigration reform.

I argued two years ago this week that legal status was the GOP's best option. Here's the crux:

1. It's a middle-ground bill. It brings illegal immigrants out of the shadows but allows Republicans to tell primary voters that they didn't vote for "amnesty." Republicans can rightly argue that illegal immigrants aren't being given an advantage over those going through legal channels to earn citizenship.
2. Republicans can tell their base that they avoided potentially granting voting rights to millions of voters who they fear would vote for Democrats. Conservatives have been using this argument against comprehensive immigration reform for months — noting that allowing millions of Democratic-leaning Latinos to register to vote could cost them future elections. (For what it's worth, this wouldn't happen for a long time, since the paths to citizenship being proposed would take more than a decade, and it's not clear how many illegal immigrants would actually seek citizenship, given the costs and hurdles involved.)
3. It would put Democrats in a tough spot. Congressional Democrats who are leading the immigration fight insist that they will not support a bill that stops short of a path to citizenship. But of course they are going to say that; caving on that item at this juncture would effectively take a path to citizenship right off the table. In the end, if there's a bill that doesn't include a path to citizenship but does move the ball forward for illegal immigrants, are Democrats really going to be the ones to halt it when the alternative is nothing?

A few things have happened since I wrote that. One is that President Obama left open the possibility of a path to legal status — and not citizenship — being the centerpiece of an immigration deal.

The second is the 2014 election, in which Republicans gained even more territory across the nation. That made a path to citizenship even less likely, given that there are fewer Democrats who could ally with a few dozen Republicans to ram through a bill.

And regardless of that, the fact of the matter for Republicans is this: If they were going to pass a bill with a path to citizenship, it would have happened after the 2012 election. They got stomped 71 to 27 among the fast-growing Latino population, and party leaders universally recognized the need to do something. Yet nothing happened, because the conservative base quite simply cannot countenance a path to citizenship.

But there's plenty of evidence that it would be more amenable to a path to legal status. A Pew report just last month showed that 56 percent of Republicans favored some kind of way for illegal immigrants to stay in the country.

Just 25 percent of Republicans said they should be allowed to apply for citizenship, but 28 percent were okay with permanent residency.

Some will dismiss this strategy as a half-measure with little payoff for Republicans. Why would the GOP work that hard to grant illegal immigrants second-class status? Would it actually move the needle with Latinos, given that Democrats would still be calling for a much-more-attractive path to citizenship and are much closer politically to the Hispanic community?

These are both great questions, but you have to believe Republicans would get some credit for bringing people out of the shadows. And Latinos are not one-issue voters; this could certainly at least open a door to voting Republican that, for many in that community, is increasingly being shut.

And then there's the matter of whether it would even work. The 43 percent of Republicans who oppose letting illegal immigrants stay in the United States is a sizable and passionate chunk — one that nobody wants to run afoul of (and risk a primary challenge over) unless they see the light at the end of the tunnel and an alternative movement building.

Bush's push for legal status could be part of that movement. Or it could be just a blip on the screen. But it's an option that Republicans would be advised to take seriously.