The GOP's great immigration crack-up: Jeb Bush's attacks on Donald Trump expose the issue's toxicity

Jeb Bush is finally going after Donald Trump, and he's laying bare the GOP's yawning divide on immigration

Published August 26, 2015 11:58AM (EDT)

  (AP/Andrew Harnik)
(AP/Andrew Harnik)

When Donald Trump first announced his candidacy for the White House, Jeb Bush had a strategy in place: don’t engage. At the time it made sense – a lot of people (myself included) just assumed that the Trump surge would intense, ridiculous, and short. For a candidate like Jeb, who wants to project an image of sober executive competence, it made no sense to get into a fight with a bombastic, attention-seeking lout. Jeb was going to let the lesser candidates tussle with Trump and debase themselves while he rose above and came off as the serious, responsible person.

But Trump, like a pancreatic tumor, didn’t go away. He just got bigger. And then he overtook Bush nationally and in New Hampshire, the state that is generally regarded as a must-win for Jeb. Now the “don’t engage” strategy is on the scrap heap and Jeb is criticizing Trump’s ridiculous policy ideas and punching back when the Donald tweets about him. And so far, Jeb has proven himself to be pretty inept at taking on Trump.

This week, Jeb has been taking shots at Trump’s insane and illegal plan for curbing undocumented immigration. His campaign produced this video casting Trump’s proposal as electoral poison that will sink the Republican Party:

On the merits, the video and its message are absolutely correct: Trump’s immigration plan is a toxic slurry of absurd proposals that deserves nothing but harsh condemnation. But the people who support Trump don’t give a shit what the Wall Street Journal editorial board and Charles Krauthammer think about Trump or about undocumented immigration. Jeb is highlighting their criticisms of Trump’s platform to make the case that Trump is unelectable, but Trump feeds off the Republican establishment’s antagonism towards his candidacy. Bush is actually helping to make Trump’s case for him.

On a broader level, Jeb’s video and his approach to Trump’s campaign highlights just how deep the divide is within the GOP over immigration, and how awful the issue is for the party. Jeb’s case against Trump is that mass deportation and harsh crackdowns on undocumented immigrants are not a feasible policy for dealing with the millions of undocumented immigrants already in the country. There is a massive portion of the Republican electorate that believes the precise opposite and would like to see as many immigrants deported as possible – 63 percent of GOP voters believe that the focus of our immigration policy should be “developing a plan for stopping the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. and for deporting those already here.”

That viewpoint has come to dominate Republican policymaking on immigration. Between the passage of the Senate immigration reform bill in mid-2013 and the 2014 midterm elections, the GOP underwent a significant rightward lurch on immigration: they killed the Senate bill through inaction, and they reacted to last summer’s border crisis by passing legislation that would maximize the number of deportations. Then they cruised to victory in the midterms, which emboldened the hardliners, who can now argue that pursuing harsh anti-immigrant policies didn’t cost them electorally. Republicans believe they have nothing to gain by pursuing “amnesty” (however you define it) and nothing to lose by clamping down on undocumented immigrants as severely as possible.

Jeb is out there trying to paint Trump as a dangerous extremist on immigration, but he’s also making excuses for the other immigration hardliners who have made this issue so toxic for 2016 Republicans. His campaign put together a document attacking Trump and laying out a “practical solution” for what to do with the country’s undocumented immigrant population, and it badly misstates the politics of immigration reform:

We need a vigorous path to earned legal status where people are required to learn English, pay a fine and taxes, pass a criminal background check, work and not receive federal government benefits.

This isn’t amnesty. It’s a sensible proposal that can be embraced by people across the political spectrum. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton the politicians in Washington have talked about immigration for 6 and half years but they have no interest in fixing it, only creating a political wedge issue. I will solve this problem, once and for all.

Barack Obama and “politicians in Washington” actually did put together an immigration proposal that was “embraced by people across the political spectrum.” But it was smothered by anti-reform conservatives in the House, who also killed two different bipartisan immigration reform proposals during Jeb’s brother’s presidency.

Jeb can blame Obama and lash out at Trump all he wants, but the insoluble blockage on immigration reform is and always has been the bloc of anti-“amnesty” conservative legislators (bolstered by talk radio and activist groups) who will not allow any legislation to pass. It’s not clear how Jeb can whack Trump for being “unrealistic” and out of step with conservative “values” on immigration when he’s not willing to approach the issue honestly himself.

By Simon Maloy

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