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.