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Op-Ed: Jeb Bush's Faults Could Be Marco Rubio's Gains

Image: Jeb Bush
Jim Cole / AP
/ Source: NBC News

As the Republican field of candidates for president begins to clear up, it’s becoming increasingly evident that Jeb Bush’s faults will be Marco Rubio’s gains.

In a recent interview with talk show host, Michael Medved, Jeb Bush was asked if he would undo the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program under President Barack Obama, and Bush gave the answer: “The DACA and DAPA? Yes, I would.”

The strongest argument in favor of Bush being the Republican candidate for president, despite his considerable baggage, is it is thought that only he has the institutional support and history with the GOP to stand up to the right wing of his party on issues that have clearly hurt the party at the national level over the last 20 years, such as immigration.

There is no debate any longer that the demographic changes of the country cannot sustain a rehash of the Southern Strategy by using Latinos as a punching bag. Not only does this isolate the GOP from the fastest growing demographic in the country, Latinos, but it turns off other groups who might be willing to listen to a GOP message if it weren't perceived to be filled with so much animosity, such as Jewish Americans and Asian Americans.

The anti-immigrant message being served up by the GOP is a loser in national elections and more and more Republicans are beginning to understand the practicalities of the hole they have dug. One such Republican is long-time GOP pollster Whit Ayres, who finally began sounding the alarm after the Mitt Romney loss to Obama in 2012.

It is no surprise then to see that Ayres has thrown the considerable weight of his experience behind Marco Rubio and joined his campaign. When asked the same question as Bush, Rubio’s response was far more polished, and ruffled the feathers of the right-wing in the process. He said he would not end DACA immediately, noting that it would be too disruptive given all the people under the program.

Rubio is trying to walk a fine line that has tripped up Republican candidates in the past. How do you maintain a strong stance, while not offending Latinos? For now Rubio has said he would cancel a different program that does not deal specifically with children.

Rubio said he would cancel DAPA, a program for people who are parents of U.S. citizens and legal residents. He has also been critical of the president's use of executive action to set up these programs and voted with other Republicans to advance a Homeland Security funding bill that included provisions that would hamper and expansion of DACA and DAPA.

But neither of these efforts have begun. While Rubio agrees the existing DACA program should eventually end, he also implies that other progress must be made first on an incremental level.

Bush has been less clear. He told Dreamers he wouldn't take away their benefits under the 2012 DACA program, but a few days later said he would end Obama's executive action programs. The 2012 DACA, expanded DACA and DAPA were all created by executive action.

Rubio's non-committal on the issue endangers him with conservatives and Latinos, alike, but he has a demonstrated willingness to take chances in Congress in order to move the party forward. Perhaps this is why Rubio has been picking up steam among donors behind closed doors and why he now leads among registered Republicans in the polls.

Donors who would rather see a Republican in the White House know that a strong national candidate that can reach out to new and more moderate voter is the only one that has a shot against Hillary Clinton. The conventional wisdom says Bush and Rubio are at the top of that list, but if Bush cannot stand up to the very folks holding the party back, we are left with another primary election season building up Democratic talking points against the GOP, such as Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” strategy in 2012.

The Republican Party is facing a simple decision. They can support an anti-immigrant message that is unpalatable in a national election and lose the election, or they can begin to meet Latinos in the middle and have a fighting chance. Latino Decisions asked Latino Democrats and Republicans if they supported DACA/DAPA and not only did 89% of Latino Democrats support the policy, but 76% of Latino Republicans were supportive of it and when the House GOP voted to defund and cancel DACA in 2013, 75% of Latino voters said it made them less favorable of the GOP.

If Bush’s interview with Mr. Medved is any indication of what is to come, and if Rubio can hold the course, it looks like the kid from Miami might convince enough Republicans that carrying Bush’s baggage may not be worth losing another presidential election.