Wait: Jeb Bush now opposes a path to citizenship for illegals?

Via Politico, I … was not expecting that. Neither was HuffPo, which points to this piece from last summer as proof that he was singing a different tune in 2012:

“You have to deal with this issue. You can’t ignore it, and so either a path to citizenship, which I would support–and that does put me probably out of the mainstream of most conservatives–or … a path… to residency of some kind,” he said during an interview last week with Charlie Rose on CBS.

Bush’s position diverges from that of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who oppposes amnesty, supports the use of e-verify to stop businesses from hiring illegal immigrants, and has promised to build a “high-tech” fence to help secure the border.

Too stale? Here’s what he said just six weeks ago:

The only alternatives to increased immigration are mounting debts or reduced social services. A practicable system of work-based immigration for both high-skilled and low-skilled immigrants—a system that will include a path to citizenship—will help us meet workforce needs, prevent exportation of jobs to foreign countries and protect against the exploitation of workers…

Immigrants replenish the American spirit. Most immigrants come here to secure a better life for themselves and their families. They cherish the values of hard work, faith, family, enterprise and patriotism that have made this country great. Meanwhile, many who were lucky enough to have been born here have grown complacent or even disdainful of these values. America’s immigration system should provide opportunities for people who share the country’s core values to become citizens, thereby strengthening the nation as have countless immigrants have before them.

Is there any obvious explanation for this reversal besides him watching Rubio roll out the Senate bipartisan bill, suddenly realizing that his 2016 niche on immigration had now been filled by a younger, more charismatic candidate, and then repositioning himself as moderately hawkish on this issue in order to gain a second look from conservatives? This shift has to be electorally-driven because there’s no way his new plan — allowing illegals to apply for permanent residency but not citizenship — will ever be accepted as policy. For Democrats, it’s a non-starter. The whole point of comprehensive reform on their end is to add illegals to the voter rolls sooner or later. Even if, by some strange twist of luck, Bush’s plan was implemented, immigration activists would get to work immediately on changing the law (legislatively or in court) so that illegals-turned-permanent-residents could eventually apply for citizenship. Meanwhile, even some immigration hawks like Mark Krikorian oppose relegating illegals to quasi-citizenship by allowing them to live and work here but never, ever to become citizens. Gingrich floated a plan like that in 2011 during the debates (the so-called “red-card plan,” which sounds a lot like what Bush has in mind); Krikorian wrote at the time that he actually preferred a straight-up amnesty to the politically charged purgatory of second-class status that a “red card” would grant. Besides, the whole point of the GOP’s big cave on immigration is to earn goodwill with Latino voters. What kind of goodwill would be earned by taking the position that sure, it’s fine for Mexicans to work, live, and pay taxes here, but voting is where America draws the line? If you’re going to cave in some quixotic attempt to turn a reliably blue constituency more red, then just cave already. Watch Lauer press him on that very point, in fact. He’s showing you exactly how the media would play this if Bush got his way.

So his plan is DOA in Congress, but he knows that already. The point here isn’t to float a viable compromise that might make comprehensive reform more salable to the base, it’s to give Bush a way to hit Rubio from the right in the primaries two years from now — which is ironic, because in another segment this morning, Bush told Lauer that Romney got in trouble with Latino voters by tacking a bit too far right on immigration in the debates in 2011. I assume he thinks he’s built up enough cred with Latinos over the years that backing away from a path to citizenship now won’t cost him many votes. We’ll see.

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