The distance is growing.

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Jeb Bush's Risky War on Nativist GOP

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Nativism is ascendant in the Republican Party. Donald Trump rose to the top of presidential primary polls after his attacks on Mexicans. His support increased when he proposed deporting millions of Hispanic undocumented immigrants. Ben Carson, adding to an already impressive list of daffy prescriptions, suggested last weekend that Muslims should be barred from the presidency despite the Constitution's unambiguous decree that the office is not subject to a religious test.

Trump, Carson and others appealing to the insecurities of conservatives promise to "take back America" in part by turning back the great cultural tide of recent decades. Heavy immigration has muddied American demographics, and the changes appear irreversible due to relatively high birth rates among Hispanics and rising rates of interracial marriage. For some, the result is an anxious Babel -- "This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish," Trump declared at last week's CNN debate.

And then there is Jeb Bush. He has consistently opposed Trump's plans for a border wall and mass deportations. In a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce yesterday in Houston, Bush reiterated his support for legal status for undocumented immigrants and embraced the "vitality" of a culturally diverse society. It isn't just talk. 

"We speak more Spanish than English at home," Bush told ABC News in June, in a Spanish-language interview translated by ABC. At a time when his party is flirting openly with Islamophobia, it gets more interesting. "Our grandkids, almost all of them speak Spanish," Bush said. "Two of them also speak a little Arabic." His daughter-in-law, Bush explained, "was born in Canada but she is of Iraqi descent. We of course also have a Texan and a Mexican in our family so it is quite a mixture -- very American."

John Ellis Bush is an unlikely champion of unwinding the ethnic and cultural hegemony that produced him. In an insightful essay in February, David Frum cast Bush as the "Republican Obama," a man of fluid identity who is at home in a century in which sharp boundaries are blurring.

Unlike Republican rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, each of whom is the product of a traditional immigrant narrative of wholesale assimilation and striving, Bush is a complicated outlier. A son of one of the most powerful families in the world's most powerful nation, he married a woman from an obscure family in Mexico at a time when that nation was deemed "third world." The power disparity in their relationship could not have been greater. Yet Bush's wife, Columba, did not surrender to her husband's dominant culture and embrace the enormously valuable trappings of all things Bush.

Instead, Bush, a Latin American studies major in college, converted to his wife's religion, Catholicism, and native tongue. When the couple settled in the U.S., they did so in Miami-Dade, a Florida county that is currently two-thirds "Hispanic or Latino," according to the U.S. Census. "We chose Miami to live because it is a bicultural city," Bush said in a 2013 interview.

This is the context in which to understand Bush mistakenly marking "Hispanic" on a 2009 voter registration application. It is the context in which to understand his politically risky support for high levels of immigration and even riskier tolerance of illegal immigration (which he unforgettably called an "act of love").

It's also central to the challenge Bush faces in his presidential campaign. It's not just a matter of "Bush fatigue." He is an agent of the polyglot America that infuriates many Republicans.

In a 2011 interview with Jay Nordlinger of National Review, Bush cited his support for Paul Ryan's budgets and conservative entitlement reform. But he also pointed to his record, as governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007, of appointing "people who reflected the new Florida and the diversity of the state." Bush summed up his approach: "Embracing diversity in the right way showed that being anti-anything really wasn't what I was about."

In speech and demeanor, Bush conveys a steady decency, readily dispensed. But a sizable part of the electorate choosing the next Republican nominee appears to be not only anti-something but very nearly anti-everything. The party's anti-establishment, anti-government, anti-immigrant voters resent the privileged past from which Bush arose. And they resent the pluralistic future to which his personal and political journey leads.

For now, the fractured Republican field enables Bush to pursue the nomination without seeking the support of the party Antis. But can a Republican gain the nomination in 2016 without reckoning with the forces propelling Trump, Carson, Cruz and Fiorina? If Bush succeeds in reaching a point in the campaign where he needs to expand his coalition to include voters on the resentful right, he may discover that he no longer speaks their language.

Update: Campaigning in Iowa today, Bush said: "We should not have a multicultural society" and stressed that being able to speak English is important. His language was sufficiently cautious that it wasn't an explicit repudiation of his whole life. But he sure seemed to be riding in the Trumpian slipstream. Video here

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net