Jeb Bush’s ‘Act of Love:’ Taking One For The Party?

Photograph b yAndy Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush during a Long Island Association luncheon with LIA President and CEO Kevin S. Law on Feb. 24, 2014 in Woodbury, New York.

In portraying a parent’s illegal border crossing as “an act of love,” Republican Jeb Bush has defined one of the boundaries of compassion in the presidential election campaign to come — whether he’s in it or not.

Nearly two years away from the party’s first presidential primary elections and caucuses, the former Florida governor has set a marker. It willl either answer the question about his own electability in a contest that tests the most conservative credentials of its contenders. Or it will provide some running room for people closer to his own views on immigration than those of the primary voters who bought Mitt Romney’s talk of “self-deportation. ”

Room for people like Florida’s Marco Rubio, who was one of the architects of a bipartisan Senate immigration plan rejected by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the early darling of the presidential contest-starting caucuses in Iowa.

Bush, who repeatedly has said that he’ll decide by the end of this year whether he will seek his party’s nomination for the office held by his older brother and his father before him, may simply be attempting to tone down the rhetoric of a contest whose excesses in the past have damaged its nominees heading into the general election. Witness Romney in 2012, and Arizona’s Sen. John McCain in 2008, the erstwhile moderate “maverick” who flamed out with the conservative base’s popular Sarah Palin by his side.

At a celebration of the 25th anniversary of his father’s presidency in Texas over the weekend, Bush urged lawmakers to avoid “harsh political rhetoric” in the debate over immigration. Many of those parents who have arrived illegally in the U.S., he said, came here to put food on their children’s table.

It is, he said with a pause and then a flourish, “an act of love.”

“I honestly think that that’s a different kind of crime,” Bush said. “There should be a price paid, but it shouldn’t rile people up that people are actually coming to this country to provide for their families… We need to get beyond the harsh political rhetoric to a better place,” said Bush, explaining that his own decision about entering the 2016 race hinges on family considerations and the potential for waging a campaign “with a hopeful, optimistic message” that avoids the “vortex of the mud fight.” A “joyful” campaign.

Bush will likely find little joy explaining illegal immigration as an act of love in Iowa, where for years mere mention of the undocumented working in meat packing plants or hotels has stirred something of a xenophobic fervor among the Republicans who turn out for the party’s winter nominating caucuses. It won’t play very well in South Carolina, either. And Bush’s own brother, who campaigned as  a “compassionate conservative” in 2000, bombed in New Hamphire’s primary election that year.

George W. Bush was promoting a similar sympathy when he first ran for president, explaining that “family values do not stop at the Rio Grande.” He campaigned with promises of immigration and education reform — and achieved passage of his “No Child Left Behind” act after a year in office. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, scuttled the rest of that compassion agenda during his first term, and when he resurrected immigration reform  in his second term it failed.

These border-state governors get it.

Florida may have some water between its boundaries with Cuba, Haiti and Central America, but  it has been just as much a port of entry for families seeking a better life as Texas has been. And just as the views of the former Texas governor were tempered by his experiences with a burgeoning Hispanic population, the former Florida governor has had his eyes open since marrying the woman he met in Mexico. His oldest son, George P. Bush, a Mexican-American, has returned to Texas to seek his own political fortune, running for land commissioner this year.

Bush tried to explain all this to his party in 2012. He cautioned Romney, early in the primary season, to moderate his rhetoric. He withheld his own endorsement during Florida’s party primary.

At the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Bush met with editors of Bloomberg News and the Washington Post over breakfast and sat for an interview on Bloomberg Television. It’s “not just Latinos, but Asians as well,” he said, which will make the nation’s growing immigrant community “the dominant factor in politics.”

Bush has even written a book about it — ``Immigration Wars.”  “No comprehensive immigration plan can ignore the many millions of people living illegally in the United States,” he and his co-author wrote last year, stopping short of endorsing a path to citizenship for the undocumented but supporting legal status of some kind. “We propose a path to permanent legal resident status for those who entered our country illegally as adults and who have committed no additional crimes of significance… Permanent residency in this context, however, should not lead to citizenship.”

The trouble with Bush’s party — as borne out in the 71 percent Hispanic vote that President Barack Obama recorded at reelection in 2012 — is that Iowa and South Carolina don’t get all this talk of compassion.

Jeb Bush is not wearing his brother’s mantle.

“Look, I’m a conservative and I’m a practicing one, not a talk-about-it one,” Bush said not long ago. “I would put my record up against anybody that’s in Congress right now.”

Like Rand Paul’s? In Iowa?

Or more like Marco Rubio’s. In Florida, or California.

Bush may or may not be running.

Yet he’s making some room for others.

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