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Is Jeb Bush actually a moderate, or does the media just think he is?

Jeb Bush
Jeb Bush
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Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

In an excellent profile in the Weekly Standard, Andrew Ferguson reviews Jeb Bush's record in Florida and concludes that overall, he's much more conservative than both the national press corps and right-leaning activists think. He posits at the end that Jeb could be "a self-conscious, deep-dyed conservative who for the moment feels the need to look like a moderate, especially before an admiring press and in the company of the wealthy Republicans who these days are his constant companions and marks."

I've been exploring similar territory for a forthcoming piece on Bush's political history, and there's definitely a lot of truth to this analysis. What I'd add here, though, is that Bush's position on immigration reform (which Ferguson doesn't really get into) doesn't quite fit into this framework. To see why, check out this video from Bush's Right to Rise PAC, titled "Conservative" and presenting highlights from Bush's speech at CPAC:

After a litany of standard conservative views, there's the twist: "There is no plan to deport 11 million people," the video shows Bush saying. "We should give them a path to legal status where they work, where they don't receive government benefits, where they don't break the law, where they learn English, and where they make a contribution to our society."

The point? Other likely 2016 Republican candidates are contorting themselves on immigration. Recently, Scott Walker stressed his opposition to "amnesty" in public, while privately telling elites that he'd support, at least, a path to legal status. Dara Lind has a good rundown of the controversy here. But Bush is taking the opposite approach, not only playing up his support of legal status in both public and private, but also arguing that it is the true conservative position.

So here, Bush's position-taking isn't just rhetorical. It's a genuine attempt to shift his party and its base from their current default view, which is opposition to immigration reform that legalizes the status of unauthorized immigrants.

The upshot is that by challenging his party on one high-profile issue, Bush has to do less to seem moderate elsewhere, in the eyes of both the press and activists, when the general election rolls around. And somewhat fairly so! With the parties as polarized as they are, it is genuinely unusual for a candidate to forthrightly take on the base.

But as both liberals and conservatives agree, Bush's overall governing record has very little that's moderate about it. So in an interesting sense, Bush's immigration position lets him have things both ways — it gives the media a peg to hang the moderate label on Bush, but as the right learns more about his record, it lets him tout that he is, otherwise, a down-the-line conservative.

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