I want to pick up where Guy left off, with the last little bit from Rubio’s Fox appearance this morning. Skip to 4:15 of the clip below. Simple question from Bill Hemmer: Thumbs up or thumbs down to Jeb Bush calling illegal immigration an “act of love”? Here, for the sake of comparison, is what Rep. Raul Labrador said yesterday when asked the same thing:

“When you trivialize the fact that these people have broken the law, I think your message is a little bit off. I think it’s unfortunate,” Labrador said at a Tuesday event sponsored by The Heritage Foundation…

“I think comments from Jeb Bush and other Republicans — what they’re doing is they’re pandering to a certain group of people,” Labrador said. “And I’ve got news for you. If we pass immigration reform tomorrow like members of the Republican conference want us to do, they’re not going to vote for the Republican Party.”

Tough (but accurate!) stuff. In fact, Mickey Kaus had a theory that the whole point of Jeb’s comments was to set Rubio up to say something similar. Bush isn’t running for president, Kaus speculates, but he’d like to do what he can to make it easier for his friend Marco to run by making himself a convenient punching bag for Rubio on immigration. The squishier he sounds, the easier it is for Rubio to impress tea partiers by beating up on him. Kaus:

Look at it this way: The GOP establishment is desperate to suppress Tea Party conservatives and also obtain the immigration amnesty they believe will win Latinos and relieve them of the need to do too much rethinking in other areas. The problem for the establishment is lack of candidates. Rubio was a favorite, but he sabotaged himself among core Republican primary voters with his disingenuous, flip-floppy championing of the Gang of 8′s bill. That left Christie–but then Christie got caught in a traffic jam. That left Jeb, probably the establishment’s original choice–but it turns out that Jeb is still a Bush, and even the Bushes are sick of the Bushes. That leaves … well, Rubio again. Maybe he can be rehabilitated in time for the primaries! How? Hmm. Well, if Jeb takes a stand way far out in a squishy idealistic pro-amnesty direction, that creates space for his quondam protege, Rubio, to stake out a position that’s seemingly tougher–e.g. “Jeb’s off base there. Saying it’s an ‘act of love’ obscures the very real problems illegal immigration can cause, which is why I am strong on border enforcement, etc.” Of course Rubio would still be for amnesty, and the establishment would know this. But it might help smuggle him through the primaries.

Here’s a perfect test of that theory. Hemmer sets Rubio up to spike the ball on Jeb and … he politely declines, saying that the issue is complex, that the rule of law is important, but that the human side of immigration is also important and Bush’s comment “shines light” on that. If, in other words, the “act of love” business was all about making Rubio look good by drawing a contrast, Jeb forgot to clue Rubio himself in to their nascent “good cop, bad cop” routine. What you’re actually seeing here is a guy being very careful not to alienate a big-name Republican who could be an asset for him in 2016 assuming he doesn’t run for president himself. There’s a piece at National Journal today speculating that Rubio could be the establishment’s choice in 2016 if Jeb passes on the race and Christie’s campaign ends up DOA. Rubio’s well positioned to win Bushworld’s backing — hawkish, “reasonable” on immigration, friends with Jeb, the whole package. He even has some claim to the mantle of “compassionate conservatism” that marked Dubya’s first campaign. He’ll be the “Bush” in the race if there’s no real Bush to choose from. In which case, why go picking fights with Jeb, especially this early?