What is Jeb Bush thinking?

Observers debate whether the flip-flop-flip is an effort to position himself for 2016, or an attempt to sell books

Topics: Jeb Bush, Immigration, 2016 Elections, Marco Rubio, Morning Joe, Editor's Picks,

What is Jeb Bush thinking?Jeb Bush (Credit: Reuters/David Manning)

The reaction to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s seeming flip-flop-flip on immigration has left many observers with the same reaction: What is he thinking?

Bush had been a longtime proponent of comprehensive immigration reform, so when he came out against a pathway to citizenship in his new book, there were questions.

“Jeb’s immigration book roll-out reminds me of song: ‘How could something so right, go so wrong?’” tweeted Ana Navarro, a Bush ally who led Hispanic outreach for John McCain’s presidential campaign. “I’m confident Jeb will clarify.”

And this morning, clarify he did, if you can call it that. Within hours of the book’s official release Tuesday, Bush was already backtracking on the path to citizenship claim. “We wrote this book last year, not this year,” he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” noting that there has since been an emerging bipartisan consensus on reform.

“I don’t have a problem with a pathway to citizenship,” he explained, walking back the book’s contention. “I don’t see how you do it, but I’m not smart enough to figure out every aspect of a really complex law.”

Needless to say, people are confused. “Wow,” Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, told TPM. Like other reform advocates, he was surprised that Bush, a longtime ally across the aisle, would shift on this.

As recently as Jan. 24, Bush favored a pathway to citizenship. “A practicable system of work-based immigration for both high-skilled and low-skilled immigrants — a system that will include a path to citizenship — will help us meet workforce needs, prevent exportation of jobs to foreign countries and protect against the exploitation of workers,” he wrote in an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal.

Where the hell was this Jeb Bush during the campaign?” an unnamed Romney advisor told the Miami Herald. “He spent all this time criticizing Romney and it turns out he has basically the same position. So he wants people to go back to their country and apply for citizenship? Well, that’s self-deportation. We got creamed for talking about that. And now Jeb is saying the same thing.”

Ultimately, as the conservative Washington Examiner’s Byron York wrote, Bush seems to be trying to thread the needle in a place where both statements are true. He opposes a broad pathway to citizenship, but leaves several key exemptions.

Part of the problem, as the National Journal wrote, is that “Bush’s party moved a lot faster than the book-publishing world.” Bush wrote the book when Romney, the leader of his party, was staking out the most conservative immigration policy of any Republican  presidential candidate in recent history, and he was playing along.

But others see the move, confused as it may be, as a strategic decision not about the last election, but the next one.

“This was Jeb’s less than subtle signal to donors that he’s seriously considering 2016 — and he sent it in a way that Marco’s sure not to miss,” a senior Republican strategist not affiliated with any potential candidate told the Washington Post.

Indeed, the new bearishness of a pathway to citizenship (assuming he sticks to it) puts him to the right of Sen. Marco Rubio, who is leading the GOP’s immigration reform efforts in Congress, as well as other potential 2016ers like Rep. Paul Ryan, and Govs. Chris Christie and Scott Walker.

Rubio himself spoke out against Bush’s new stance yesterday, before the former governor recanted. Asked about the book by reporters, the senator said, “I just personally, ultimately concluded that to permanently say that you’re going to have millions of people that can never apply for citizenship hasn’t really worked well for other countries that have tried it.”

Sen. John McCain, who also favors a pathway to citizenship, added to NBC Latino: “We are proceeding on the principle that once we have effective control of the border that would establish the path to citizenship.”

Navarro had another theory as well, “I’m beginning to think my capitalist friend, Jeb Bush, stirring controversy to drive up book sales. It’s working,” she tweeted.

Alex Seitz-Wald

Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at aseitz-wald@salon.com, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.

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