Don't expect him to be rewarded for it, but Jeb Bush actually did something humane, if not brave, last night: He talked about undocumented citizens as human beings.
Donald Trump is correct to say his outrageous rhetoric on illegal immigration has pushed the Republican primary field to the right. Pandering to the nativist strain in the Republican base that has vaulted him in the polls, Trump has proposed the deeply sadistic policy of ending birthright citizenship and implementing forced deportations of 11.3 million immigrants already living in the U.S.
CNN moderator Jake Tapper used Trump's extreme plan last night to test the rest of the primary field. Would they be willing to challenge Trump on a policy so wildly outside of the possible? Would anyone be willing to say that it'd be ethically wrong to tear 15,000 people away from their homes for the crime of seeking a better life in America?
Chris Christie was asked first, and he didn't take the bait. He began answering Tapper's question by bloviating about his record in law enforcement, and then said that he wouldn't endorse Trump's plan because the forced deportations "is an undertaking that almost none of us could accomplish given the current levels of funding and the current number of law enforcement officers." (Note that he didn't say doing so would also be an almost unbelievably cruel thing to do.) Christie closed by throwing red meat to the crowd about the need to close the borders.
Ben Carson went next, and similarly refused to admit even a modicum of sympathy for immigrants. He came out against Trump's plan on procedural and practical grounds — and actually endorsed the essential principles motivating the real estate mogul's raving-mad proposal. "If anybody knows how to do that," Carson stammered, "I would be willing to listen. And, if they, can, you know, specify exactly how that's going to be done, and what the cost (sic), and it sounds reasonable, then I think it's worth discussing...."
Enter the unlikeliest of heroes: A sad, awkward, entitled, oligarchic and corrupt weasel from Florida.
Bush began, like Carson and Christie, by pointing out that the practical difficulties of mass deportations. Then he hit his stride.
"It would destroy community life, it would tear families apart," Bush said of Trump's proposal, according to the Washington Post transcript.
"And it would send a signal to the rest of the world that the United States values that are so important for our long-term success no longer matter in this country."
Bush is getting heat this morning from some commentators, many on the left, for not sufficiently defending his wife. I think that's unfair: Bush demanded an apology from Trump and didn't get it, but he made a point and moved on.
The focus on that exchange, however, misses the more important moment in the debate: When Jeb Bush — albeit with vague circumspection, albeit weakly, albeit with an unbelievably low bar to cross — was willing to stand up to the Trump bully and say: Yes, immigrants are people, too.