During a “Family Reunion” conference hosted by the Hispanic Leadership Network in April 2013, Jeb Bush spoke freely on the promise immigrants hold for America and his views on reform.
He said, during a discussion with Univision, that it was “ridiculous” to think that DREAMers, children brought to the U.S. by their parents illegally, shouldn’t have an “accelerated path” to citizenship.
Then, the former Florida governor was speaking to a friendly audience of establishment Republicans, after re-inserting himself in the immigration reform with the release of a controversial book on the issue a month prior.
But as he moves towards a probable presidential run, and the far less friendly terrain of the GOP primary fight, the comments, which were shared with CNN by Democratic tracking firm American Bridge, are certain to deepen already developing headaches for him — on both the left and especially the right, as conservatives react in a mixture of bewilderment and eye-rolling when confronted with some of Bush’s resurfaced lines on immigration.
“I’ve never felt like the sins of the parents should be ascribed to the children, you know,” Bush said in 2013. “If your children always have to pay the price for adults decisions they make — how fair is that? For people who have no country to go back to — which are many of the DREAMers — it’s ridiculous to think that there shouldn’t be some accelerated path to citizenship.”
Bush’s spokeswoman, Kristy Campbell, said the comments didn’t mark a departure from Bush’s previously-stated positions on immigration reform. Bush wasn’t suggesting, she said, that border security isn’t an important aspect of reform.
“Governor Bush has been extraordinarily clear that we need to address the border crisis by fixing our broken immigration system. Border security is a key and chief component of sustainable and effective immigration reform,” she said.
Other comments included that Bush declared that “it’s not possible in a free country to completely control the border without us losing our freedoms and liberties.”
He even suggested the mayor of Detroit — the economically depressed Midwestern city where he’s giving his first policy address of the 2016 campaign on Wednesday — use immigration to “repopulate” the city.
“It just seems to me that maybe if you open up our doors in a fair way and unleashed the spirit of peoples’ hard work, Detroit could become in really short order, one of the great American cities again,” Bush said then. “Now it would look different, it wouldn’t be Polish…But it would be just as powerful, just as exciting, just as dynamic. And that’s what immigration does and to be fearful of this, it just seems bizarre to me.”
And he praised the “courage” of Sen. Marco Rubio and Jeff Flake in pursuing the bipartisan Senate immigration reform bill, telling the crowd to encourage the senators to “stay the course.”
The comments Bush made several years ago weren’t dealbreakers for him in a primary, multiple conservative operatives and lawmakers said. And they didn’t reveal beliefs or positions on immigration that he hasn’t already openly held.
But they were so atypical for a Republican candidate gearing up for a presidential run that the universal reaction from conservative operatives was “Wow.”
That’s the word Hogan Gidley, a South Carolina Republican operative who’s advised both Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum’s presidential campaigns, used when confronted with the comments.
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“Those are definitely not helpful for Mr. Bush,” he said. Gidley did note, however, that immigration reform hasn’t been a deal-breaker in the South Carolina primary in the past, pointing to Newt Gingrich’s 2012 primary win as evidence, and that Bush will “have so much money that he can, possibly, overcome these types of things.”
“But,” he added, “it’s going to take a lot of money to overcome some of these types of quotes.”
“Wow” is also what conservative strategist Daniel Horowitz, who edits the site ConservativeReview.com, said when he saw them.
“I’m just reading this stuff — wow,” he said. “This is insane. Honestly, I don’t take him seriously, because of [comments like] these and because of the Bush name it’s very hard to see him getting anywhere in a primary.”
And it was the response to the comments from Brent Bozell, chairman of the conservative group ForAmerica.
“That thinking is utterly contrary to what grassroots Republicans believe. He is reflecting the viewpoint of the Chamber of Commerce and big business,” he said.
Conservative lawmakers declined to outright take aim at Bush, but they showed surprise at his comments.
“Well, I don’t think [he] would” suggest an accelerated pathway to citizenship for DREAMers, said Rep. Raul Labrador, when asked about the hypothetical case of a potential GOP presidential candidate proposing such a thing.
“You look at what Jeb Bush has said…and it’s well within the mainstream of the Republican Party,” he added.
Confronted with Bush’s comments, Labrador demurred, saying he hadn’t seen the interview so he couldn’t comment.
Immigration hardliner Rep. Steve King, too, avoided knocking Bush, but suggested his comment on immigration “repopulating” Detroit was out of touch.
“I would probably have sat on the mountaintop a long time before I would have thought of that,” he said with a chuckle.
The comments add to one of Bush’s greatest challenges in the GOP primary — a record that, while once conservative for the party, hasn’t aged well as the GOP has moved farther right. Bozell warned that, once the gloves are off, Bush’s comments will haunt him through the primary.
“Watch for his opponents to smack him in the mouth all primary season long with his own words,” he said.
And his record and rhetoric on immigration reform in particular are likely to cause him trouble in the key early states of Iowa and South Carolina, where the social-conservative GOP base is strong and immigration is a hot-button issue.
Texas-based GOP operative Matt Mackowiak suggested this offers conservatives who are already skeptical of the former Florida governor more reason to be wary.
“It kind of pours gasoline on the fire among conservatives who don’t trust Jeb on immigration,” he said.
Mackowiak noted that Bush hadn’t done anything to try to move farther to the right on immigration, or explain his previous comments.
“They’re either convinced that they can’t change the way people view him, or, as he said, he needs to persuade Republicans on this,” he said.
He said “we’ll see” whether that happens, and suggested Iowa would be a good test of whether Bush is successful at convincing the party to get on board.
But if Bush does attempt to move farther right, he risks being labeled at best a flip-flopper and at worst a panderer, and offers fodder for Democratic attacks.
Indeed, Jesse Lehrich, spokesman for American Bridge, accused Bush of “flagrant pandering” to a friendly audience, while veering to the right under different circumstances.
“It turns out that if you put Jeb Bush in the right room, he talks like Ted Kennedy. Put him somewhere else and he’s the ‘head-banging conservative’ he once declared himself,” he said.
“Maybe he doesn’t realize how much has changed in the 13 years since he last ran for public office, but these days, the cameras are always rolling — and flagrant pandering isn’t a good look.”