Former Florida Governor and likely 2016 presidential candidate Jeb Bush reportedly “never forgave” Mitt Romney for moving to the right on illegal immigration, which was perhaps one of the only issues where Romney was somewhat in line with conservatives.
Romney announced on Friday that he would not make a third run for the White House, and NBC’s Chuck Todd said Romney was Jeb Bush’s preferred candidate in 2007 before Romney flipped on immigration. Todd added that “some of the interest in the race was personal” Jeb Bush “never forgave” Romney for using “immigration as a wedge issue against McCain.”
“He wouldn’t be shy about criticizing Romney. He thought he is pandering too much,” Todd said. “And that continued through 2012. And that’s really what drove Jeb away from Romney, it is the way Romney ran against immigration reform.”
In the 2008 election cycle, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) was inevitably on his way to the nomination. But after he supported comprehensive amnesty legislation with former President George W. Bush and the late-Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), his fundraising dried up to the point where McCain had to lay off staff, carry his own bags and fly in coach class to town halls in New Hampshire, the state that saved his presidency. Romney was not going to win the battle for moderate Republicans over McCain, so he veered right on immigration to give himself a competitive advantage. He ran attack ads against McCain that accused him of letting “every illegal immigrant stay here permanently” and even voting to “allow illegals to collect Social Security.”
In the 2012 election cycle, Romney’s conservative rhetoric on immigration saved himself from a potential challenge from former Texas Governor Rick Perry, who was surging in the polls before Perry declared that those who oppose in-state tuition benefits for illegal immigrants did not have “a heart.” After Perry made those remarks during a GOP primary debate in Florida, his poll numbers plummeted and he was essentially finished as a viable contender. Romney had opposed in-state tuition and driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.
Just like Romney’s comments about being “severely conservative” raised red flags about his conservatism, Romney’s self-deportation comments showed that he was not quite in tune with the language of immigration enforcement. Romney could have saved himself a lot of headaches, for instance, had he said he supported “attrition through enforcement.”
After the 2012 elections, though, Romney softened a bit on the issue. For instance, the Sunday before last year’s midterms in which red-state Democrats were on the run because President Barack Obama’s forthcoming executive amnesty and handling of illegal immigration was so unpopular, Romney went on Fox News Sunday and said a potential GOP-Congress would get amnesty legislation “done” even though Republicans were on the verge of taking back Congress largely due to the electorate’s opposition to illegal immigration.
Regardless of whether Romney believed his rhetoric on immigration, he was smart enough to know that the issue deeply resonates with Americans, especially GOP primary voters. And it was an issue that allowed conservatives to give the moderate establishment candidate they could never fully trust at least a look in two election cycles in which there really wasn’t a full-spectrum constitutional conservative who could rally the GOP base.
After Obama’s executive amnesty and last summer’s border crisis, illegal immigration is likely to be more of an issue in 2016 with a GOP base that has become more conservative, according to Gallup, since 2000. A Gallup poll last year found that illegal immigration was the top issue for Republican voters.
But the issue is resonating many more Americans who are not GOP primary voters. A recent Gallup poll found that just seven percent of Americans want more immigration and 60% are disasstified with current immigration levels. A Paragon Insights poll found that Americans across all demographics and ethnicities–including a majority of Hispanics--want tougher laws against businesses illegally hiring illegal immigrants. And a Polling Company poll last year found that Americans wanted a pause on immigration, perhaps to allow for more assimilation and because all of the net jobs since
Bush, who infamously referred to illegal immigration as an “act of love,” has relentlessly pushed comprehensive amnesty legislation and declared he will try to “persuade” conservatives on the merits of moving to the middle on immigration and amnesty.