For most Republican candidates, a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border is both a performance and an education. Donning baseball caps with campaign slogans, they wish to be seen as leaders who will roll up their sleeves and solve problems: in this case, drug smuggling, undocumented immigration, and border control. For many candidates their recent visits are among the first times they’ve ever seen the border up close, accumulating first-hand knowledge of a place, its people, and the challenges they face.
For Jeb Bush, this week’s visit to the border city of McAllen, Texas, was a little bit different. Yes, he gave the same kind of performance as other candidates. Bush also sought to make clear his preparation to tackle the region’s problems and promote its wellbeing. But instead of a first-time education, for Bush it was more of a review session. Over several decades, Bush has become unusually well versed in U.S.-Latin American relations and the interests of Latino communities in the United States. This is perhaps the main reason he’ll be a more appealing candidate among conservative Latinos than most others in the field.
Since his visit, the media has focused on his explanation for using the term “anchor babies”; namely, that he was primarily talking about “Asian people” instead of Latin American immigrants. To many, it seemed like he’d thrown Asian Americans under the bus in order to placate Latinos. But it would be dangerous to dismiss Bush as a bumbling fool who’s more similar than different to Trump and other Republican candidates, as Hillary Clinton has tried to do. To do so would be to underestimate a politician who has spent decades honing a message designed to appeal to voters whose support is widely understood to be critical to winning the presidency. It would mean being lulled to sleep by someone whose support among Latinos runs deep.
Unfortunately, the attention to his opponents’ statements about Mexicans, immigration, and the border—that America needs to deport all illegals, they’re murderers and rapists, the country must end birthright citizenship, Mexico must build and pay for a 2,000 mile-long wall—has allowed more moderate candidates like Bush to fly under the radar for weeks. It has also prevented Americans from engaging in serious debate about other everyday issues that will affect Latinos and immigrants under the next president, including educational, economic, and healthcare policy. On those issues, Bush’s positions may resonate with some elements of the Latino community, but stand at odds with much of it.
Read sympathetically, the details of Jeb’s biography suggest his deep attachment to Latin American and Latino communities. He is fluent in Spanish. He received a Master’s degree in Latin American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, the same institution that controversially gave his son George P. Bush its inaugural Latino Leadership Award. He spent time in Mexico and Venezuela; married Columba, a Mexican woman from the state of Guanajuato; and even claimed to be “Hispanic” on a 2009 voter registration application in Miami-Dade County, Florida—mistakenly, he said.
Spanish-language media has called him a “Latino” candidate, high praise that Jeb has cultivated for a long time. In many ways, he has prepared to court the Latino vote for decades, as a Texan, a student traveling abroad in the 1970s, a real-estate developer in the 1980s whose partner was a Cuban immigrant, a Miami politician in the 1990s, and the governor of Florida—a state that has one of the largest Latino populations in the nation—in the 2000s.
Jeb has also learned from, and was perhaps even responsible for, his family’s successes and failures among Latin Americans and Latinos. When his father, George H.W. Bush, ran for President in 1988, he had his “Spanish-speaking son, Jeb,” who at the time was Florida’s Commerce Secretary, help him woo Cuban American and Puerto Rican voters. Even earlier, in 1984, Jeb scored points for Ronald Reagan, his father’s boss. When one Puerto Rican was asked why he supported Reagan, he replied, “I believe he has a great belief in the Hispanic people … Even George Bush’s son … is married to a Mexican girl.”
Jeb was also called on to do damage control when things went badly for his father. In May 1988, when Bush Sr. gaffed on the campaign trail by waffling on his support for Puerto Rican statehood—the most important and divisive political issue on the island—Jeb flew to Puerto Rico to “clear up any confusions,” as his father’s adviser Andrew Card put it. A few months later, in August, Bush Sr. infamously introduced his grandchildren as “Jebby’s kids from Florida, the little brown ones.” Critics, especially liberal Latinos, he then insisted, had misinterpreted the “pride and love” he felt for Jeb’s kids.
George H.W. Bush knew he could rely on Jeb and his grandchildren. He saw them as assets to his presidential campaign. Rather tone deaf, he said, “we’re going to unleash the entire Bush family on this Hispanic, Mexican-American, Cuban-American, whatever-it-is community and when it’s all over—whether I win or lose—they’re going to know that I care, care a lot.” He did win, although he received a lower percentage of the Latino vote in his unsuccessful campaign for reelection in 1992 than he had in 1988. By contrast, Reagan, Bill Clinton, his son George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all received higher percentages of the Latino vote during their reelection campaigns than in their initial runs, in 1984, 1996, 2004, and 2012.
Jeb has repeatedly asserted, “I am my own man,” primarily to distance himself from his brother’s decision to invade Iraq. But in terms of courting Latino voters, Jeb surely hopes to emulate his brother’s success. In 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush won 35 and then 40 percent of the Latino vote, helping him win. Like his brother, Jeb has adopted the compassionate conservative moniker, claiming during his successful 1998 campaign for governor that it was better to adopt a “kinder” and “gentler” approach to immigration and minority issues in general. Jeb hangs on to this idea today, claiming that undocumented immigration is an “act of love,” a risk that parents take so their families might find better lives.
Make no mistake, Jeb would be a formidable candidate in the general election. One might even argue that each Bush has been more successful than the last in terms of appealing to Latino voters, and that thought should keep Democrats awake at night. Jeb’s success among Cubans and Puerto Ricans in Florida may not translate to a national Latino audience, especially Mexican Americans in the Southwest, but he will be able to rely on his brother’s support networks there. He will also have his Mexican American sons stumping on his behalf; they’ll be more credible surrogates than Mitt Romney’s son, Craig, who learned Spanish as a Mormon missionary in Chile. Then there’s Jeb’s own ease with Spanish compared with most other candidates who can fumble over a phrase or two.
Still, Jeb’s compassionate rhetoric and fluent Spanish may not be enough to outweigh conservative policies that are out of step with what most Latinos want. He only began to emphasize the kinder and gentler nature of his policies following his 1994 loss to the Democratic incumbent Lawton Chiles. Jeb ran on a conservative agenda that included promoting school vouchers, ending welfare, restricting abortions, and demanding longer sentences for criminals. When an African American woman asked him what he planned to do for blacks in Florida, he replied, “Probably nothing.” Like many other conservatives, he said he didn’t want to single out any race for support; he wanted to help all Floridians. By the same logic, as governor he helped end affirmative action in Florida.
Jeb has toiled hard, for decades, to cultivate Latino support. But do not mistake his moderate tone, performance of goodwill, or marketability to Latino voters for an entirely different message than his cruder primary opponents. To be sure, there is a large constituency within the Latino community in favor of many of the policies he and his party promote. Some reports claim Latino support for education savings accounts and private school vouchers runs as high as 70 percent. But, with that notable exception, support for Bush’s signature positions is more limited. Depending on the issue—abortion, foreign policy, the economy—only between 25 and 40 percent of Latinos prefer the GOP’s approach. If elected, though, Bush would attempt to enact these policies, which remain unpopular among a great majority of Latinos.
As governor, Bush supported tax policies that benefit businesses and investors more than working-class Floridians, and presided over the growth of one of the largest margins of income inequality in the nation. Latinos, whose margin of income inequality compared with whites has increased in the past several years, may look askance at that record. He opposed the expansion of affordable healthcare for groups other than senior citizens. Latinos, on the other hand, support Obamacare to the tune of 60 percent. Finally, despite recognizing the public utility of bilingualism—ever hear him on the stump?—he believes that immigrants must learn and speak English.
Jeb will never call Mexicans murderers and rapists, so when the circus leaves town, he may be the candidate still standing. It would be easy to focus on his credentials and goodwill, and to neglect the extent to which his policies seem at odds with the views of the majority of the Latino community. Voters should cut through the noise, examine his record and his policies, and draw their own conclusions.