By Cameron Joseph - 03/06/13 12:49 AM EST
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s (R) highly publicized stumble over whether he supports a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants has proven a major distraction during his media blitz on immigration policy — and it could be a sign of rust as he considers jumping back in the political fray.
Bush, who left office six years ago, has seen early efforts to promote his new book on immigration reform derailed by conflicting statements about a central element of his plan to overhaul the system.
He first defended his opposition to a citizenship pathway — which is being embraced by pro-reform Senate Republicans — only to soften his tone on Tuesday.
“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,” Bush told MSNBC. “I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t see how you do it, but I’m not smart enough to figure out every aspect of a really complex law.”
Bush’s evolving position is drawing some concern among Republicans.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Bush is a “great voice on immigration” within the GOP and someone who “understands the Hispanic community.”
But Graham, a member of the bipartisan Senate group that is working on an immigration reform proposal, added that Bush’s statements weren’t helping.
“I just think this proposal caught me off-guard, and it undercuts what we’re trying to do,” Graham said.
Democrats, meantime, mocked Bush for the apparent flip-flop.
“Let’s wait for a few minutes to see how Jeb Bush changes his mind,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) joked to reporters.
“His opinion on immigration is not evolving, it’s devolving. He keeps going backward. I think he made a fool of himself in the last 24 hours.”
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) also took a shot at the former Florida governor.
“Poor Jeb Bush. So far from God and so close to the Tea Party,” he said in a statement. “This is why things are the way they are, because Republicans let themselves be bullied by the most extreme members of their party.”
Bush’s latest comments mark a sharp change from what he and co-author Clint Bolick had written in their book, in which they back a pathway to legal residency for illegal immigrants but not citizenship.
“It is absolutely vital to the integrity of our immigration system that actions have consequences — in this case, that those who violated the laws can remain but cannot obtain the cherished fruits of citizenship,” they write.
“A grant of citizenship is an undeserving reward for conduct that we cannot afford to encourage.”
Bush spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof said Bush’s position had not shifted, though she focused on his overall support for reform and not the question of citizenship.
“His position hasn’t changed — he has said as of last year that we have to have comprehensive immigration reform,” Emhof said.
“In writing the book in 2012, looking at the political environment out there of what was being discussed last, they [Bush and his co-author] went to the path to legalization.”
Most Republicans defended Bush on Tuesday as a leader on immigration who wanted to do what’s right on the issue.
Sally Bradshaw, a Bush confidante who served as his chief of staff when he was governor, told The Hill that the story was being blown out of proportion.
“Bottom line: We live in a five-second sound bite world and Jeb’s position [is] more thoughtful than that and requires the media to spend at least five minutes to absorb,” Bradshaw wrote in an email.
“His position hasn’t changed — the focus of the book is legal residency and [a] completely re-imagined immigration system. Read the entire book — then write about it.”
Some Republicans said Bush’s stumble showed a bit of rust for a candidate who hasn’t faced an election for more than a decade, but is considered an early front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
“It’s hard to write a book in the world we live in today given how quickly things are changing because the publishing schedule doesn’t fit the hyperactivity of Twitter and everything we have in politics right now,” GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak said. “I think he is trying to navigate primary politics a little bit and I think he’s a little bit rusty at that. He’s still a towering figure in the party and is as strong as almost anyone who’s served in elected office.”
Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said that rust could be Bush adjusting to the speed of today’s news cycle.
“You’ve got to recognize everything you say is going to be scrutinized and held against you. That’s the hardest thing for any candidate moving from the sideline into the fray of the general election,” O’Connell said.
“It’s something he needs to work on, and something everyone in the Republican Party has to be cognizant of.”
Justin Sink and Alexander Bolton contributed.