WASHINGTON — When they wrote "Immigration Wars" last year, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick were pushing the boundaries of the GOP's internal policy debate. The book is a tight, effective brief for comprehensive reform, making the case that a humane, orderly immigration system would increase the American stock of human capital, add to economic growth, address declining fertility and affirm our national character. A Republican candidate making those arguments during a primary debate last season would have risked being hooted off the stage.
But it is amazing what a good shellacking will do. In 2004, the Republican candidate lost the Hispanic vote by 9 percentage points; in 2012, by 44 points. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., as part of the Gang of Eight, subsequently embraced a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented workers. In his book, Bush recommends a path to permanent noncitizen resident status. On publication day, the avant-garde seemed old guard.
"It is really not surprising," Bush told me. "The book was written last year in a certain environment. The goal was to persuade people against immigration reform to be for it. Since that time, eight of 100 senators have moved, and not much in the House. ... When we were working on this, Marco Rubio wasn't for a path to citizenship."
The most instructive elements of these two approaches are where they agree. Both would offer illegal immigrants — after appropriate screenings and penalties — a permanent legal status. Both would also require illegal immigrants to join the line behind legal immigrants seeking citizenship (with Bush requiring them to return to their native countries first).
This is the real conservative sticking point in the current immigration debate. Many Republicans — at least Republican leaders — no longer object to the idea of permanent status, even earned citizenship, for undocumented workers. But they are concerned that a system giving illegal immigrants advantages over those waiting patiently in line will simply re-create current problems down the road. "If there are incentives to come here illegally," Bush tells me, "we'll be the same place we were, five years from now."
Bush has designed his plan to remove those incentives, while making the "regular order" system a more realistic prospect for legal immigrants. This requires "effectively creating a line, which does not currently exist. The line to come in from the Philippines is something like 160 years." So Bush would adopt what he calls a "normal definition of family unification" — narrowed to bringing over only a spouse and minor children instead of including brothers, sisters and older parents — which would "dramatically increase other categories" of legal immigration. "If we don't change the system, coming here illegally will be the only way available."
Bush's primary concern is the incentives of the system, not the details of a path to citizenship. "If there is a way to deal with it that isn't as onerous for people who have come here illegally," he says, "I'm for that. We're writing a book, not a law." Which is the reason that Rubio's ideas are the main starting point for the Republican policy debate. He will help write the law.
Yet Bush is making his own contribution. He calls immigration reform a "gateway issue for those with connection to the immigrant experience. It is an initial test of tone and message." But turning the Hispanic and Asian votes around, he argues, will require a proactive message, setting out "our version of health reform. How we would embrace innovation and dynamism; reform our schools so everyone has the capability to rise. How we deal with poverty that empowers people to pursue lives of purpose, not dependence. We have stopped being the party that offers solutions."
Bush does not approach these issues as a moderate, or even as a Jack Kemp-like bleeding-heart conservative. "Expanding government to empower people? I haven't been in favor of that. Forty percent of GDP (consumed by government) is the most I can take." His primary focus is the reform of institutions, particularly the immigration system, public education and Medicare. "Government is mired in the 1970s," he says, "with huge cost structures and poor outcomes. Every other institution has gone through a transformation. Government hasn't."
This approach has its limits. The GOP not only has a policy gap, it has an empathy gap, which will not be closed merely by talking about modernizing antiquated structures. But empathy means little without effective policy — an argument in favor of Bush's bracing, reformist rigor.
Michael Gerson's email address is email@example.com.