Jeb Bush is getting used to hecklers real quick. He was officially a presidential candidate for about 20 minutes before a coordinated heckling campaign hijacked his announcement and pushed him into unplanned territory.
It felt like inverted déjà vu; just a few months ago, Bush joined Sean Hannity for a Q&A session on the main stage of CPAC, and a cadre of Tea Party activists and Rand Paul supporters made a dramatic exit in the middle of the former Florida governor’s speech. Led by a hirsute gentleman sporting a tricorn hat and a Gadsden flag, they marched out and then congregated in the hallway to tell reporters how unacceptable it was that Bush supports comprehensive immigration reform and isn’t Rand Paul.
Monday afternoon’s party-crashers made a ruckus on a similar scale, but for ideologically opposite reasons. They sported day-glo green T-shirts and stood up in a row in the middle of the candidate’s speech. Letters on their shirts together spelled “LEGAL STATUS IS NOT ENOUGH!”
Bush didn’t want to have to talk about immigration. A transcript of his remarks released to media as he began to deliver his speech didn’t include any references to the contentious issue. Bush’s stance on immigration reform is probably more detailed than any other contender’s, Republican or Democrat. Still, his hesitance to talk about it on the announcement stage makes sense, given that it’s a highly polarizing issue for much of the Republican base.
But if the former governor thought he’d get through his announcement without addressing the issue, he was dead wrong. When the protesters appeared, C-SPAN cameras cut away from Bush to pan across their display, and he paused his speech. Then he went off-script to acknowledge their concerns.
“The next president of the United States will pass meaningful immigration reform, so that that will be solved—not by executive order!” he said.
That line wasn’t in the speech, and it’s mostly a reiteration of what he’s argued in the past about the need for a comprehensive immigration overhaul. But it’s probably still going to get him in trouble.
“So Jeb’s response to amnesty hecklers is to...promise amnesty. #SuperAwesome,” tweeted conservative blogger Drew McCoy.
The protesters’ shirts called for a pathway to citizenship for immigrants living illegally in the country. Hillary Clinton staked out this position in May, arguing that anything short of citizenship would be unjust. Bush argued in his book on immigration policy, Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution, that a pathway to citizenship would be unfair to immigrants who sought citizenship through legal routes.
But Bush also has indicated that he would be OK with letting undocumented immigrants become U.S. citizens as long as it was part of a legislative overhaul that included his policy goals. He said as much in an interview on Fox News with Megyn Kelly in May.
“I’ve said, as long as there—if that was the way to get to a deal, where we turned immigration into a catalyst for high, sustained economic growth, where we did all the things we needed to do in border security, where we narrowed the number of people coming through family petition and dramatically expanded a like-kind number for economic purposes, which will help us grow and help the median rise up, in return for that, as a compromise, sure,” he said.
He shot down the hecklers by reiterating that sentiment—that comprehensive immigration reform could make everybody happy. That is, everybody except for many of the conservative primary voters who could hold the keys to the Republican kingdom.
Bush will spend the rest of this week darting from early state to early state, talking foreign affairs with veterans in South Carolina and economics at an opera house in New Hampshire. The press release detailing the schedule for his debut week as an official candidate didn’t list immigration as a priority topic for any of his planned meetings. But it’s Jeb. He can’t not talk about it.