Donald Trump's thus-far-unchecked upward march in the polls matters even though an ultimate Trump victory is unlikely. The issue is the Trump effect, whereby desperate or nervous non-Trump Republican contenders feel compelled to say things about immigration that they'll come to regret down the road. Trump has made it clear that anti-immigrant demagoguery has a large constituency among Republican primary voters, and while the non-Trump Republicans are increasingly happy taking on Trump the man, they prefer to try to co-opt the demagoguery in a way that speaks volumes to Latinos about their place in the party's vision of America.
The latest victim is Jeb Bush, whose solid record of advocacy for comprehensive immigration reform, fluency in Spanish, and Mexican-born wife ought to make him ideally situated to grow the GOP's share of the Latino vote. But here he is hitting Donald Trump from the right on a variety of issues, including immigration. Bush says Trump has donated money to Democrats, has said nice things about single-payer health-care systems, has endorsed a wealth tax, and generally hasn't been a true conservative.
But what about immigration? Surely Trump has been authentically — even excessively — right-wing on immigration?
Nope. Rather than attack the manifest cruelty of the Trump immigration plan, Bush says "hundreds of millions of dollars of costs to implement his plans is not a conservative plan." He followed up with an appearance on Bill Bennett's radio show where he called for "Better enforcement so that you don't have these, you know, ‘anchor babies', as they're described, coming into the country."
Maybe this kind of weaseling away from the core issue is a smart pitch to the overwhelmingly white primary electorates in Iowa and New Hampshire. Maybe it isn't. But the message to Latinos is loud and clear — when the going gets tough and the most anti-Latino voices in the Republican coalition are braying, Jeb Bush doesn't have your back. His big problem with Trump's plan is that it's too expensive.
There's probably no one policy position on immigration that Republicans need to embrace to make progress with Latino voters. But what they need to do is avoid developing the toxic relationship the party has with African Americans, a toxicity based less on any particular policy than on the general perception that the GOP tent is a welcome one for racists. As the RNC's 2012 postmortem document put it, "It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies." It is pretty clear that Trump and his supporters do not want Hispanics here. Framing your objection to his approach around the idea that it's too costly to bother with does not challenge that assumption.
Obviously this still leaves Bush in a better position with Latino voters than some of his rivals. Scott Walker, for example, is now promising people a "very similar" plan to Trump's. Ted Cruz is talking about how he invited Trump to tour the US-Mexico border together. Bobby Jindal says he now wants to end birthright citizenship.
But most of these candidates never had a great chance of winning over Latinos to the conservative cause. Bush really did. But weak-sauce responses to Trump are giving it away.