Veering Is Jeb Bush's Real Immigration Issue

National Journal

Jeb Bush has joined the exclusive "I was for it before I was against it before I was for it" club. He became a member by saying Tuesday on MSNBC that he would support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants if it can be done without creating "an incentive for people to come illegally."

The real problem for Bush, however, isn't his triple flip. It's that he couched his opposition to a path to citizenship as a matter of deeply held principle.

"It is absolutely vital to the integrity of our immigration system that actions have consequences -- in this case, that those who violated the law can remain but cannot obtain the cherished fruits of citizenship. To do otherwise would signal once again that people who circumvent the system can still obtain the full benefits of American citizenship," Bush and co-author Clint Bolick write in Immigration Wars, their new book.

Making sure there's no incentive to attract more illegal immigrants is different from making sure that "actions have consequences" for the estimated 11 million people already living in the United States without documents. Many at the center of the debate in Washington, including a bipartisan Senate group working on comprehensive immigration reform, have moved past the fairness/amnesty question to a more pragmatic approach.

They've had to, given the expense and logistical difficulties of trying to oust 11 million people. For Republicans, there's also the practical consideration of  trying to improve their dire political standing among Hispanics.

Bush was once in the forefront of GOP outreach to Hispanics. To recap: The former Florida governor, whose wife is Mexican, has in the past supported a path to citizenship. The new book says illegal immigrants should be able to earn permanent U.S. residency, but not citizenship. Now Bush and his aides are saying the politics have changed since he wrote the book. They say he was just trying to open a dialogue and get the Republican Party thinking about alternatives to its hardline positions.

Bush has a lot of company on his flips and flops, starting with John Kerry (who famously said of Iraq war funding in 2004 that he was for it before he was against it) and John McCain (for a path to citizenship, then against it, then for it, on grounds of border security issues).  He's also not alone in standing on a principle, and then altering or walking away from it.

For instance, many conservatives believe abortion is tantamount to murder, yet they support allowing it in cases of rape, incest and to save a woman's life.  President Obama has in the past said that marriage is an act performed "before God" between a man and a woman, and is not a civil right. He has obviously changed his mind about those principles.

Obama has a couple of advantages that Bush does not have. For one thing, Obama talked about his "struggle" and "evolving" attitudes on the gay marriage issue for several years before he did his full flip last year. By contrast, Bush just last year said he supported a path to citizenship. Obama also moved in the direction of changing public opinion, while Bush is now positioned further away from the emerging consensus than he was last year.

All in all, it's a terribly awkward re-launch for a man viewed as a serious student of policy and one of his party's best hopes for 2016. It's also a cautionary tale for other ambitious politicians. Given the dramatic shifts over the past year on immigration, guns and gay marriage, they should not assume today's attitudes are cemented in stone. And they should learn to love the e-book. It could save them a lot of grief.