The shift stunned even Bush’s closest allies and suddenly put the former governor out of step with many Republicans, including a fellow Miamian, Sen. Marco Rubio, who has been trying to push the GOP toward a citizenship plan.
“This proposal caught me off guard, and it undercuts what we’re trying to do,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of a bipartisan working group on immigration.
Bush on Tuesday tried to refute the suggestion that he had flip-flopped. He and his aides argued that he wrote the book last year after the bitter GOP presidential primary, in which eventual nominee Mitt Romney voiced support for “self-deportation,” and that Bush was looking for a politically practical middle ground.
“We wrote this book last year, not this year, and we proposed a path to legalization, so anybody that had come illegally would have immediately a path to legalization,” Bush said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” But he added moments later: “If you can craft that in law, where you can have a path to citizenship where there isn’t an incentive for people to come illegally, I’m for it. I don’t have a problem with that.”
Republican strategist Ana Navarro said Bush was a victim of timing. As his book was working through the slow process of publication, Republicans moved quickly to respond to President Barack Obama’s overwhelming victory last November among Hispanics.
“The partisan divide got a lot narrower, a lot faster, than Jeb anticipated,” Navarro said.
Still, the appearance that Bush was maneuvering on a key policy prompted some in the party to reassess his intentions.
“Until [Monday] I didn’t think he was going to run” for president, said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. “If you ask me why he did it, I’d say he’s thinking of running and he wants to make sure he can appeal to a broader base in the party.”