Jeb Bush’s Bold (Or Bold-Faced) Gambit

You have to admire, in a sick sort of way, any politician that gets caught mispositioning him- or herself on a major issue and then just quickly flip-flops and denies it. Mitt Romney, to the surprise of many of us, managed this maneuver (denouncing Obamacare and then denying any contradiction with his own authorship of the state health reform initiative it was based upon) for two solid years.

Can Jeb Bush do the same with the immigration issue? He’s sure trying, as explained by TPM’s Benjy Sarlin:

Jeb Bush completed a whirlwind one-week journey on immigration on Sunday, praising a Senate proposal to grant eventual citizenship for undocumented immigrants after attacking the idea in a newly released book he co-authored that was itself a reversal of his past position.

To make a long story short, Bush’s new book (written near the savage end of the period of nativist domination of the GOP that began in reaction to his brother’s comprehensive reform initiative and extended throughout the 2012 presidential nominating process) flatly eschewed a “path to citizenship” for those who had earlier entered the country illegally in favor of a vast “guest worker” program that would legitimize most of the undocumented without granting them citizenship, thus avoiding the twin perils of “amnesty” and of cattle cars transporting millions of women and children to the border. Now Jeb’s claiming this carefully calibrated positioning was just a psychological ploy to lure angry wingnuts onto the paths of righteousness:

On CBS’ “Face The Nation,” Bush downplays the inconsistency between his book’s tough criticism of a path to citizenship and his apparent support for a Senate plan that includes exactly that.

“Well first of all, I haven’t changed,” Bush says. “The book was written to try to create a blueprint for conservatives that were reluctant to embrace comprehensive reform, to give them perhaps a set of views that they could embrace. I support a path to legalization or citizenship so long as the path for people that have been waiting patiently is easier and costs less — the legal entrance to our country — than illegal entrance.”

Yes, that’s right: Bush is not only (a) denying he changed his position, and (b) suggesting he was just acting as a shepherd to the wayward nativist sheep, but is (c) trying to take credit for the recent reemergence of comprehensive immigration reform as an acceptable conservative policy goal. That’s some serious chutzpah, folks.

The Romney analogy is apropos in another sense: before it became ideologically toxic, Romneycare was Mitt’s calling card, his example of successful conservative policymaking on an issue that had long been “owned” by Democrats. Much of Jeb Bush’s appeal (beyond the general belief that he was the most genuinely conservative pol in his family) as a potential presidential candidacy came from his theoretical appeal to Latino voters as someone married to a Mexican-American (his kids were the ones famously referred to by his father as the “little brown ones”) who also had close ties to Florida’s Cuban-American community. His brother, after all, had championed a “path to citizenship,” and he was generally regarded as Marco Rubio’s political patron. By choosing to publish an entire book on immigration reform at the very beginning of a new presidential cycle, Jeb drew a great deal of attention to his background on the issue, and thus had nowhere to hide when it turned out he had guessed wrong on where his party was headed on this subject.

So like Romney before him, he seems to have decided to just brazen it out, hoping his acrobatic changes of position become yesterday’s news if he decides to run for president. It more or less worked for Mitt–at least in securing the GOP nomination–but if Jeb does want to run, he cannot be so assured that he will face the kind of clownish intra-party competition that was so crucial to Romney’s nomination campaign. It would be particularly ironic if Jeb were to be pushed aside by his former protege Rubio as someone with greater credibility in both Tea Party and “pragmatic conservative” circles. But that could happen. George W. Bush’s “smarter brother” may have just out-smartest himself.

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.