By MAGGIE HABERMAN, POLITICO
Jeb Bush defended his controversial comments about immigration reform, insisting they were nothing new for him and urging “sensitivity to the immigrant experience.”
At a Connecticut Republican party dinner Thursday night, the former Republican governor of Florida did not repeat his remarks from last weekend at his father’s presidential library, when he said that people who come to the United States illegally in search of a better life for their children “broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love.”
“To be young and dynamic again we have to be young and dynamic again,” Bush said, adding that people need to view “immigration reform not as a problem, but as a huge opportunity.”
“This past weekend, I made some statements about immigration reform [that] generated a little more news than I anticipated,” Bush told the crowd of more than 700 guests at the annual Prescott Bush Award dinner, an event named for his grandfather.
“You know, I’ve been saying this for the last three or four years, I said the exact same thing that I’ve said regularly,” he said. “And the simple fact is, there is no conflict between enforcing our laws, believing in the rule of law and having some sensitivity to the immigrant experience, which is part of who we are as a country.”
“It is not an American value to allow people to stay in the shadows,” Bush added, saying he’d just learned of a high school athlete at Miami Beach High School who’s been in the U.S. since he was a young boy but who was told to go back “to his native land…[the message the young man received was] you’re not worthy of being successful in our country.”
Bush’s initial “act of love” comments ignited a firestorm of criticism from conservatives. Bush hasn’t campaigned for elected office in 12 years, but is weighing a bid in 2016.
Bush has long advocated for immigration reform. But the issue has taken center stage in politics recently in a way it hadn’t in almost a decade, as President Obama and Senate Democrats have pushed for a comprehensive reform package the past year.
The younger brother of George W. Bush began his speech by acknowledging his wife, Columba, and their 40-year marriage, which other speakers before him took note of.
“I wish Columba could be here to hear me applaud with compassion and conviction” when that was mentioned, he said, describing how they met when he was in high school. “Forty years of marriage for me is a big darn deal and I love her very much.”
Bush’s speech sounded every bit like a dry run at a stump address, touching the topics of repealing and replacing Obamacare, the position of the United States in international relations, developing energy sources, fixing the tax code and reforming education.
He also called for entitlement reform, saying it could only happen once Obama left office. “We must fix our entitlement system before it overwhelms everything else,” he said. “We need to be real with the American people that this is not sustainable.”
He received his biggest applause when he declared that “we must repeal Obamacare and replace it with a consumer-directed, market-oriented” system.
He described a nation in which “economic and social mobility now has stalled out,” and repeated a theme from his recent speeches, that the party needs to stand for something again.
He denounced the phrase “the new normal – every time I hear it I get really sick to my stomach.”
“What we ought to do is to say that the new normal is that we’re young, and energetic and emerging again as a nation,” he said.
And he emphasized “leadership,” saying Republicans need to win in the fall midterm races – especially in governors’ races around the country. He referred only briefly to his own tenure as governor, in relation to his focus on education reform.
He also refrained from attacking Obama by name, but made clear jabs at his policies.
“We’re less of a force for peace and security around the world,” he said, adding that “terms like ‘leading from behind,’ and red lines that seem to have no meaning [are]…creating a tremendous uncertainty. Our alliances are weakened, our friends are uncertain and our enemies seem to be emboldened.”
He never mentioned 2016. But former Connecticut gubernatorial hopeful Linda McMahon, who was honored with the Prescott Bush award, made a passing reference to it in her speech.
So did Bush’s cousin, Debbie Stapleton, who noted that Bush’s mother, Barbara, recently said that Jeb Bush “would be the most qualified person in the country. Now, what do you think she was referring to?”