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Why Jeb Bush is talking about Pilgrims

Andy Jacobsohn/Getty Images

On Wednesday at the Detroit Economic Club, in response to a question about immigration, Jeb Bush tried a new line comparing today's immigrants to the Pilgrims themselves.

From CNN:

"The American experience works when people embrace a set of shared values," Bush said. "You come, you work hard, you embrace these values and you're as American as anybody that came on the Mayflower."

It's a fun riff — taking the line members of both parties trot out about America being a "nation of immigrants," and going one step further by appealing to the oldest (except for Native Americans), safest (except to Native Americans), whitest immigrants of all.

And the line makes it clear that as he road-tests messages for the campaign trail (which the press has generally treated as the purpose of the Detroit speech), Bush is still invested in embracing immigration reform. Rather than trying to sweep aside his disagreements with many conservatives over the issue, he's trying to find a way to get them on board — or at least to neutralize the most passionate opposition, by using conservative themes of shared values and hard work to make immigrants seem more like "us" than "them."

But it's not necessarily clear that the message will succeed. After all, the last time Bush tried to argue that today's immigrants were motivated by common human values, it went badly for him. In April 2014, Bush said that immigrants who came illegally to provide for their families "broke the law, but it's not a felony. It's an act of love." Conservatives got angry, and the position appears to be a turnoff for primary voters as well: in a December poll of Republican voters from CNN/ORC, 42 percent of voters said that Bush's "act of love" comment made them less likely to support him, while only 20 percent said it made them more likely.

So Bush is making another attempt to defend immigration in a way the GOP base can get behind. But it's genuinely surprising that he's still trying to figure this out. Bush wrote a book, Immigration Wars, that was supposed to establish him as a serious Republican thinker on exactly this issue — or at least to test-drive a message before the 2016 race. The book's release was badly fumbled when Bush decided to step away from supporting a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants at exactly the time Senate Republicans embraced it, losing him credibility in Washington. And it seems like after all his experience with the issue, Bush is still casting about for a message that vocally anti-"amnesty" primary voters can tolerate, either.

Maybe the Mayflower line will work. Maybe it won't. On the one hand, it's a long primary season, and Bush has some time to figure out how to keep his support for immigration reform from being a liability for some primary voters. On the other, it looks like this is a tough nut to crack.