Is Immigration A Poison Pill For Jeb Bush?

Jeb Bush is challenging the assumption that support for citizenship is fatal in a Republican presidential primary.

National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
March 23, 2015, 6:51 a.m.

Jeb Bush has com­mit­ted him­self to test­ing a crit­ic­al ques­tion that each of the GOP’s past two pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ees would not: wheth­er sup­port for com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form that in­cludes a path­way to cit­izen­ship is a pois­on pill in the GOP primary.

In the pro­cess, Bush is for­cing a de­bate that will gauge how much the party’s cur­rent co­ali­tion is will­ing to change its agenda to court new voters.

Though con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans have shelved dis­cus­sion of im­mig­ra­tion re­form, Bush’s re­cent in­dic­a­tion that he still sup­ports a path­way to cit­izen­ship for some of the es­tim­ated 11 mil­lion un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants guar­an­tees that the GOP will con­front the is­sue more dir­ectly in its up­com­ing pres­id­en­tial race than in 2008 or 2012. The com­ing skir­mishes will likely de­term­ine wheth­er the even­tu­al GOP nom­in­ee can re­con­sider hard-line party po­s­i­tions on im­mig­ra­tion that have ali­en­ated the grow­ing His­pan­ic pop­u­la­tion that is now cent­ral to the mod­ern Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion.

While John Mc­Cain and Mitt Rom­ney, the even­tu­al nom­in­ees in the 2008 and 2012 con­tests, earli­er in­dic­ated sup­port for cit­izen­ship to vary­ing de­grees, each man backed away from that po­s­i­tion dur­ing his race. Bush made a very dif­fer­ent cal­cu­la­tion earli­er this month in New Hamp­shire when he re­as­ser­ted that he would sup­port a path­way to cit­izen­ship for the un­doc­u­mented, so long as it im­posed de­mand­ing con­di­tions and was em­bed­ded in com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion-re­form le­gis­la­tion that in­cluded tough­er se­cur­ity.

Since sig­nal­ing his in­terest in the 2016 race, Bush had pre­vi­ously spoken in more am­bigu­ous terms about sup­port­ing “leg­al status”—pos­sibly something short of full cit­izen­ship—for the es­tim­ated 11 mil­lion un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants. Bush had va­cil­lated between those two po­s­i­tions as well around the re­lease of the 2013 book he co-au­thored on im­mig­ra­tion re­form, Im­mig­ra­tion Wars.

But in New Hamp­shire, Bush ex­pli­citly de­clared that he would sup­port cit­izen­ship if Con­gress ap­proved it as part of a lar­ger im­mig­ra­tion pack­age that re­quired the un­doc­u­mented to pay fines, learn Eng­lish, and pass oth­er hurdles. Cit­ing the 2013 Sen­ate le­gis­la­tion craf­ted by the bi­par­tis­an Gang of Eight that provided a path­way to cit­izen­ship, Bush in­sisted: “If you could get a con­sensus done where you could have a bill done, and it was 15 years [for cit­izen­ship] as the Sen­ate Gang of Eight did, I would be sup­port­ive of that.”

Bush has joined the oth­er likely GOP con­tenders in pledging to re­voke Pres­id­ent Obama’s pro­posed ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion that would provide leg­al status, but not cit­izen­ship, to about 5 mil­lion un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants. But by in­dic­at­ing he would sup­port a le­gis­lated path to cit­izen­ship, Bush de­cis­ively sep­ar­ated him­self from po­ten­tial 2016 rivals like Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er and Flor­ida Sen. Marco Ru­bio—each of whom has moved away from earli­er sup­port for cit­izen­ship. (Ru­bio was a prin­cip­al au­thor of the 2013 bill.) Bush also made a very dif­fer­ent cal­cu­la­tion than either Mc­Cain or Rom­ney.

Be­fore his 2008 pres­id­en­tial bid, Mc­Cain joined with Demo­crat­ic Sen. Ted Kennedy to drive through the Sen­ate com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion le­gis­la­tion sim­il­ar to the 2013 bill that in­cluded a path­way to cit­izen­ship, along with a guest-work­er pro­gram and tough­er en­force­ment. As Mas­sachu­setts gov­ernor, Rom­ney did not fully en­dorse the Mc­Cain-Kennedy le­gis­la­tion, but he de­scribed it as “reas­on­able” and re­jec­ted the charge that it rep­res­en­ted am­nesty for the un­doc­u­mented.

But by the time of the 2008 GOP pres­id­en­tial primar­ies, both men had dis­tanced them­selves from the le­gis­la­tion. Re­vers­ing his earli­er view, Rom­ney de­nounced the Mc­Cain-Kennedy bill as am­nesty and touted hard-line po­s­i­tions against un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants.

Even Mc­Cain wavered after the Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled House re­fused to con­sider his le­gis­la­tion amid a con­ser­vat­ive back­lash. Through the 2008 GOP primar­ies, the Ari­zona sen­at­or moved away from the bill and said as pres­id­ent he would in­stead pur­sue the ap­proach favored by con­ser­vat­ives: work­ing first to fur­ther se­cure the bor­der be­fore con­sid­er­ing any change in status for the un­doc­u­mented. In a Janu­ary 2008 de­bate, Mc­Cain reached the deep­est point of his re­treat when he said that he would not vote for his own le­gis­la­tion if it reached the floor again. “No, I would not, be­cause we know what the situ­ation is today,” he said. “The people want the bor­der se­cured first.”

When Rom­ney ran again in 2012, he moved still fur­ther right on im­mig­ra­tion. He de­nounced Texas Gov. Rick Perry for back­ing in-state tu­ition for the chil­dren of un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants and pledged to tight­en en­force­ment to a level that en­cour­aged im­mig­rants here il­leg­ally to pur­sue “self-de­port­a­tion.” Though former House Speak­er Newt Gin­grich, one of Rom­ney’s chief rivals, in­sisted that the coun­try would not de­port mil­lions of fam­il­ies, no ma­jor can­did­ate made the case for provid­ing cit­izen­ship to those here il­leg­ally.

Though George W. Bush won the GOP nom­in­a­tion in 2000 while broadly sup­port­ing im­mig­ra­tion re­form, the past two races have hardened the as­sump­tion among many Re­pub­lic­an op­er­at­ives that sup­port for leg­al­iz­ing the un­doc­u­mented—which con­ser­vat­ives de­ride as “am­nesty”—is an un­sus­tain­able po­s­i­tion in the GOP primary.

But the polling evid­ence isn’t so clear-cut. While sur­veys show that cit­izen­ship faces an im­pas­sioned streak of res­ist­ance among likely Re­pub­lic­an voters, the polls of­fer mixed sig­nals on wheth­er enough voters re­main open to a can­did­ate hold­ing that po­s­i­tion to build a win­ning co­ali­tion.

The most omin­ous res­ult for Bush came in the most re­cent NBC/Wall Street Journ­al Poll. In that sur­vey, 62 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­an primary voters said they would be less fa­vor­able to­ward a can­did­ate “who sup­ports a path­way to cit­izen­ship for for­eign­ers who are cur­rently stay­ing il­leg­ally in the United States,” while only 22 per­cent in­dic­ated they would be more fa­vor­able. The share of GOP voters who said they would be less fa­vor­able to­ward a can­did­ate sup­port­ing cit­izen­ship ex­ceeded the por­tion who in­dic­ated res­ist­ance to a can­did­ate fa­vor­ing Com­mon Core cur­riculum re­form (52 per­cent), rais­ing taxes on the wealthy (51 per­cent), or same-sex mar­riage (50 per­cent).

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Mc­Cain’s is­sue dir­ect­or in 2008 and now pres­id­ent of the Amer­ic­an Ac­tion For­um, a cen­ter-right think tank, says that be­cause of its phras­ing, that res­ult over­states GOP voter op­pos­i­tion to cit­izen­ship. “It’s too simple, be­cause when you just ask it that way, people skip over the path­way [lan­guage] and they just think ‘cit­izen­ship-am­nesty-bad,’” he said. “That’s the trap.”

A series of sur­veys in re­cent years have found that most Re­pub­lic­ans re­ject de­port­a­tion and are will­ing to ac­cept some leg­al status for the un­doc­u­mented—but only a minor­ity of them en­dorse full cit­izen­ship.

Polling con­duc­ted by long­time GOP poll­ster Whit Ayres for AAF last year found that a 56 per­cent to 36 per­cent ma­jor­ity of likely GOP primary voters would ac­cept a leg­al status “that does not provide full cit­izen­ship.” But by a 48 per­cent to 44 per­cent plur­al­ity, GOP primary voters re­jec­ted cit­izen­ship, the sur­vey found. Polls by the non­par­tis­an Pew Re­search Cen­ter dur­ing the 2013 im­mig­ra­tion de­bate like­wise found that, while a sol­id ma­jor­ity of about three-fifths of Re­pub­lic­ans be­lieved the un­doc­u­mented should be al­lowed to leg­ally re­main in the United States, only about one-third of GOP par­tis­ans en­dorsed cit­izen­ship.

Exit polls in Ari­zona and Flor­ida dur­ing the 2012 GOP primar­ies pro­duced com­par­able res­ults. In each case, about one-third of GOP voters sup­por­ted cit­izen­ship for the un­doc­u­mented and roughly an­oth­er fourth said they should be provided leg­al status short of full cit­izen­ship; about one-third said they should be de­por­ted (with the re­mainder un­cer­tain). Sim­il­arly, in the exit poll con­duc­ted by Edis­on Re­search among voters in the 2012 gen­er­al elec­tion, Re­pub­lic­ans backed some leg­al status over de­port­a­tion by 51 per­cent to 42 per­cent.

More re­cent evid­ence, though, sug­gests Obama’s move to provide leg­al status for many of the un­doc­u­mented may have hardened Re­pub­lic­an at­ti­tudes. In the 2014 elec­tion na­tion­al exit poll, 57 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­an voters said the un­doc­u­mented should be de­por­ted, while only 38 per­cent backed leg­al status.

One oth­er re­cent piece of evid­ence com­pletes the pic­ture. In Feb­ru­ary, the NBC/Mar­ist Poll asked likely GOP primary voters in three cru­cial early states wheth­er a can­did­ate who sup­por­ted im­mig­ra­tion re­form “in­clud­ing a path­way to cit­izen­ship for un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants” would be ac­cept­able to them. Likely Re­pub­lic­an primary voters in Iowa split ex­actly in half, with 49 per­cent say­ing yes and 49 per­cent no. In New Hamp­shire, 43 per­cent said yes and 54 per­cent no. In South Car­o­lina, 46 per­cent said yes and 52 per­cent no. The share that de­scribed a can­did­ate sup­port­ing a path­way to cit­izen­ship as “totally un­ac­cept­able” was smal­ler, ran­ging from 27 per­cent to 33 per­cent across the three states.

Like these oth­er polls, those res­ults clearly in­dic­ate sub­stan­tial res­ist­ance in the GOP elect­or­ate to a can­did­ate sup­port­ing cit­izen­ship. But they also sug­gest that a can­did­ate back­ing cit­izen­ship can still com­pete for a crit­ic­al mass of voters who do not con­sider it dis­qual­i­fy­ing. Even some voters who term the is­sue dis­qual­i­fy­ing might not act that way in prac­tice, notes Hogan Gid­ley, a former ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the South Car­o­lina Re­pub­lic­an Party who worked for Rick San­tor­um in 2012 and will ad­vise Mike Hucka­bee this time. “I was ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or when Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham got booed at our con­ven­tion be­cause he said he was for im­mig­ra­tion re­form,” Gid­ley said. “And then he ab­so­lutely won in a land­slide in this state for reelec­tion. I wouldn’t say it’s a dis­qual­i­fi­er.”

For Bush, the chal­lenge of de­fend­ing sup­port for cit­izen­ship is com­poun­ded be­cause he also has re­af­firmed his em­brace of the Com­mon Core cur­riculum re­forms that fur­ther ali­en­ate many con­ser­vat­ives. (Gid­ley be­lieves Com­mon Core may ul­ti­mately prove a lar­ger hurdle for Bush than im­mig­ra­tion.) Those po­s­i­tions may help ex­plain one of the most strik­ing res­ults in the re­cent na­tion­al NBC/Wall Street Journ­al sur­vey: In that poll, fully 45 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans who iden­ti­fied as con­ser­vat­ive said they could not see them­selves sup­port­ing Bush for the nom­in­a­tion. That was much more than the 33 per­cent of mod­er­ates or lib­er­als who felt that way about Bush, or the share of con­ser­vat­ives who said they could not back po­ten­tial rivals Walk­er (15 per­cent) or Ru­bio (23 per­cent).

Taken to­geth­er, all these res­ults sug­gest that, while Bush’s po­s­i­tion on im­mig­ra­tion (and Com­mon Core) is prob­ably not an in­sur­mount­able hurdle, it will nar­row the range of Re­pub­lic­an voters he can real­ist­ic­ally com­pete for. To win the nom­in­a­tion, he will need to heav­ily con­sol­id­ate the party’s most cent­rist and slightly right-of-cen­ter ele­ments against what these polls sug­gest could be for­mid­able res­ist­ance from the con­ser­vat­ive ideo­lo­gic­al van­guard.

Mc­Cain and Rom­ney won the nom­in­a­tion des­pite fa­cing a sim­il­ar equa­tion. But each man beat op­pon­ents—Hucka­bee and San­tor­um—who nev­er ex­pan­ded their sup­port much bey­ond evan­gel­ic­al con­ser­vat­ives. Bush could face a more strenu­ous test if the early primar­ies el­ev­ate an al­tern­at­ive such as Walk­er or Ru­bio. Both men have moved to de­fuse con­ser­vat­ive op­pos­i­tion by con­ced­ing on im­mig­ra­tion re­form, and polls sug­gest either could ap­peal broadly across the party—though both might also find their own reach nar­rowed as the de­bate de­vel­ops. “This nom­in­a­tion will be won by the can­did­ate who can unite the vari­ous fac­tions of the party,” ar­gues Ayres, who is back­ing Ru­bio. “They may not be the first choice or even the second choice of each in­di­vidu­al fac­tion, but they will be ac­cept­able to all fac­tions.”

Up­dated to in­clude re­sponse from Sen. Ru­bio’s staff:

Sen. Ru­bio’s staff says that he would still sup­port a path­way to cit­izen­ship but only after the US has se­cured its bor­der—es­sen­tially the same po­s­i­tion Mc­Cain took in 2008.

“Sen­at­or Ru­bio has said that the only path for­ward that has any chance of suc­cess is to ad­dress im­mig­ra­tion re­form in­cre­ment­ally, start­ing first with get­ting il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion un­der con­trol through im­prov­ing bor­der se­cur­ity and en­for­cing cur­rent im­mig­ra­tion laws, and then mod­ern­iz­ing our leg­al im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem,” said Brooke Sam­mon, his press sec­ret­ary, in an email. “Only once Amer­ic­ans are con­fid­ent there won’t be fu­ture waves of il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion can we ad­dress the prob­lem of the mil­lions of il­leg­al im­mig­rants cur­rently here.”

Crit­ics view that po­s­i­tion as tan­tamount to abandon­ing sup­port for cit­izen­ship be­cause of the dif­fi­culty of ever con­vin­cing re­form op­pon­ents that the bor­der is suf­fi­ciently se­cure to jus­ti­fy leg­al status for the un­doc­u­mented already in the coun­try.

Janie Boschma contributed to this article.
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