Jeb Bush's campaign sent out a version of his 2016 kickoff speech to reporters without any mention of the Republican's moderate views on immigration. But then Bush went there anyway.
A group of immigration activists protesting the speech stood up during the speech in Miami on Monday wearing shirts saying "LEGAL STATUS IS NOT ENOUGH" — a reference to Bush's position that he supports legalization of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the US, but doesn't necessarily support giving them citizenship.
And Bush actually responded to the protest, promising to do something for immigrants — without resorting to executive action like Barack Obama. The off-the-cuff remark stunned reporters covering the event:
Jeb turns to protestors w "legal status is not enough" shirts and says the next potus will pass imm reform pic.twitter.com/Xr87kbdNT2— Jonathan Martin (@jmartNYT) June 15, 2015
JEB goes off script: "The next president will pass meaningful immigration reform so that that will be solved – NOT by executive order."— James Hohmann (@jameshohmann) June 15, 2015
The moment was remarkable for two reasons. The first is that it happened at all. It seems that if the protesters hadn't made it into the launch event, Bush wouldn't have said anything about their issue. This is far from the first time immigration activists have interrupted a political speech to voice their demands — just ask President Obama. And especially after they succeeded today, it's unlikely to be the last time, either. Candidates for president who don't already have answers on hand for immigration protesters and hecklers should probably start preparing some.
But Bush didn't have to respond. He could have chided them for disrupting the speech, or ignored them until security escorted them out. Instead, he chose to respond to them affirmatively — by saying the next president would get immigration reform done — while they were being escorted out (although he didn't address their actual criticism). That's actually similar to the tone he's taken with voters at campaign events who've come at him from the right on immigration. He's not running away from talking about immigration, even though it's a place where he disagrees with his opponents and with the base. Instead, he's presenting himself as a serious, solutions-oriented candidate, and just hoping that enough people will respect his gravitas even if they don't change their opinions.
Whether Bush's bet is correct is a very good question. Republican primary voters who don't trust him now might not be won over. But it's one of the most important bets his campaign is making, and it's appropriate — if unintentional — that it came up in his first official speech.