Jeb Chases the Whirlwind

A lot of folk have wondered exactly why former Florida governor Jeb Bush put out a new book on immigration policy that backtracks on his own (and his presidential brother’s) support for a “path to citizenship” just as his party was inching back towards W.’s position under the threat of demographic immolation. Was he trying to outflank fellow Floridian Marco Rubio to the right in a potential 2016 run? Did he figure his own street cred with Latinos gave him license to make a pitch for the nativist vote?

Turns out it was all a miscalculation: a combination of the lag-time between the writing and publishing of a dead-tree book, and the wild gyrations of the GOP, which was hurtling to the Right on immigration and many other issues when Jeb laid his plans.

National Journal‘s Beth Reinhard explains:

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s new book was aimed at nudging a reluctant Republican Party toward reforms that would allow illegal immigrants to live and work without fear of deportation.

But by recommending only legal residency and backing off his past support for citizenship, Bush is throwing cold water over a fledgling deal in the Senate, denting his own reputation as a bold policymaker and stoking speculation that he will run for president in 2016.

None of those things were supposed to happen.

The stunning reversal by one of the Republican Party’s leading champions of immigration reform and Hispanic outreach, at least in part, comes down to a colossal political miscalculation.

When Bush and coauthor Clint Bolick were writing the book during the 2012 presidential campaign, the GOP was veering far to the right. Republican nominee Mitt Romney had staked out a hard-line position against illegal immigration, blasting his primary rivals as pro-amnesty and promoting “self-deportation” for undocumented workers. Bush sent the book to the printer before Christmas – weeks before a handful of Senate Republicans embraced a sweeping overhaul that, like the proposals backed by Bush’s brother, former President George W. Bush, would allow illegal immigrants to earn citizenship.

Now Jeb is not only mispositioned on the immigration issue, but is committed to a book tour to draw attention to that fact, and will also have to make a defining appearance at CPAC in a couple of weeks. Does he double down and play to the nativist “base” by denouncing “amnesty?” Or does he admit he got caught in mid-flip-flop and is willing to move with the herd back towards his original immigration position?

As Dave Weigel notes this morning, the whole thing is fine advertising for e-books, which give the wily politician much shorter publication schedules and better protection against getting wind directions dead wrong.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.