Sen. Rand Paul got headlines Sunday for criticizing the Jeb Bush
comment that illegal immigration was sometimes an ‘act of love.’ But
his rebuke was gentle, perhaps because 2016 is looming.
By Mark Sappenfield
When potential presidential hopeful Jeb Bush said last weekend that
illegal immigration was not a felony, but instead often an “act of
love,” he was surely braced for the blowback from conservatives. And
it has come.
But on Sunday, the latest rebuke was among the gentlest, and that
could suggest that the entire tone of the conversation will change
Speaking to ABC News on Sunday, Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky said
Mr. Bush “might have been more artful, maybe, in the way he presented
this,” adding that the problem with Bush’s views are that “we can’t
invite the whole world.”
Senator Paul appears to have his own designs on a White House run in
2016, and he knows that advocating for immigrants who come into the
United States illegally is hardly the way into the hearts of most
Republican voters. Indeed, Paul was speaking to ABC News from a
conservative summit in New Hampshire, where he appeared to be testing
the presidential waters with other hopefuls such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R)
of Texas and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
This was not the time or the place to go soft on illegal immigration.
Yet Paul kept the flamethrower in the closet. He charitably suggested
that Bush was not “terrible” for making the comment and added that
“people who seek the American Dream are not bad people.”
After all, Paul is not Senator Cruz, whose presidential bid is
predicated on turning the Republican base into a quivering ball of
outrage. But he’s also not Bush, an electable establishment moderate
who appears to be thumbing his nose at the Tea Party right.
He is attempting to inhabit that infinitesimal space between the two
that Mitt Romney navigated so awkwardly as a presidential candidate in
While Romney had to tack right from his moderate positions as governor
of Massachusetts, Paul will have to tack somewhat to the center if
he’s to win establishment support and entertain any realistic hope of
winning the Republican nomination, much less the presidency.
Because the Republican establishment knows one thing: It’s all well
and good to take a hard line against illegal immigration now, but 2016
could be another matter entirely.
Right now, with a midterm election looming, all this talk of getting
tough on illegal immigration won’t hurt Republicans much. It might
even help. The profile of people who show up to vote in midterms is
older and whiter — in short, the very sort of people most likely to be
against illegal immigration. That’s one reason Republicans in the
House can hold up immigration reform without inflicting a political
cost on their party.
But the profile of the average presidential election voter is younger
In other words, if only the midterm election voters had turned out in
2012, we would have a President Romney now. But that’s not what
happened, and President Obama routed Romney with huge support from
Hispanics, African-Americans, and young Americans.
So on Nov. 5, the day after the 2014 midterm elections are over, the
political calculus will change.
The Republican establishment knows it must start making inroads with
Hispanics if it wants to win the White House again. That’s one big
reason Bush — a fluent Spanish-speaker married to a Mexican wife — has
had something of a renaissance in the past few weeks. And it is
perhaps one reason Paul went after Bush with kid gloves Sunday.
At the moment, amid the giddiness of an apparent Republican wave
coming this November, he’d win huge applause among conservatives for
taking on Bush more strongly.
Were he to somehow win the Republican nomination in 2016, however,
those applause lines would become Hillary Clinton ads.