In case you haven't heard, the New York Times is reporting that, ”In a 2009 voter-registration application, obtained from the Miami-Dade County Elections Department, Mr. Bush marked Hispanic in the field labeled 'race/ethnicity.'”
Native American Elizabeth Warren, meet Hispanic ¡Jeb!
What with all the serous news in Iran and Indiana, this might seem like a silly thing to talk about. Team Bush has responded to the story, and – based on this Tweet from Jeb Bush, Jr. (which his dad Re-Tweeted) – the strategy appears to be to try to downplay the story by poking fun at it.
That might be there best hope, because there is potential this could turn into a big deal, electorally speaking. That's because this kind of symbolic thing is easy to mock (see Elizabeth Warren) -- and easier to understand -- than some policy proposal.
The most damaging gaffes are the ones that reinforce a preexisting narrative about someone. A very vocal and activist segment of the Republican primary base is vehemently opposed to anything that looks like “amnesty,” and Jeb’s support for immigration reform already has him in hot water with this contingent of the GOP. This latest revelation is amnesty on steroids. It personalizes what was, heretofore, a policy story. Bush can now be portrayed as someone who has "gone native" with the amnesty gang, and is no longer "one of us."
When Sen. Marco Rubio was pushing immigration reform, buttons started popping up branding him a "RINO" who wants "AMNISTIA." The fact that these buttons looked similar to a Mexican flag, and featured Rubio wearing a sombrero, only added to the subtlety. Already, the New York Times and The Week (where I also write) have associated photos with stories about this topic showing Bush surrounded by mariachi bands and/or men wearing sombreros. Those are the mainstream outlets. Wait till the blogs get hold of this. (And don't get me started on talk radio...)
Unless this gets fixed, the conservative base (which is decidedly and passionately opposed to immigration reform, and already hostile to Bush) will use this as a cudgel to relentlessly mock and attack Bush.
To a certain extent, they have a point: Bush's cultural experience is far different from that of most Americans. I have no idea why he checked that box, but it is reasonable to say he's married to a Latina, his kids are Hispanic, and he lives in an area where he can probably go till lunch before speaking anything other than Spanish. This is not to say he's un-American, but it is to say he's international and cosmopolitan, and really, to a lot of folks, that's pretty much a distinction without a difference.
In reality, though, the difference is huge. As noted earlier, there will be comparisons to Sen. Warren. But Elizabeth Warren presumably benefited from her bogus Native American status. Bush had nothing to gain (and as it turns out, a lot to lose) by identifying as Hispanic.
Jeb’s political ideology is such that he doesn't think anyone should benefit from identity politics -- that merit, not ethnicity, is what should matter. Liberals like Warren believe that certain minority groups should get preferential treatment; Jeb, as a conservative, does not, and as such it doesn’t really matter what ethnicity he chooses to identify as. Heck, as Florida governor, Bush even went so far as to end affirmative action in the state.
"There is widespread support among whites for Mr. Bush's program, which would end preferences for businesses owned by women and minorities in bidding for state contracts. And it would end college admissions preferences based on race, substituting a program guaranteeing admission to at least 1 of the 10 state universities for high school students who graduate in the top 20 percent of their class."
Bush is wise to try and diffuse this with humor, but only time will tell if that works. This could still be politically damaging. But that doesn't mean it should be. Jeb's WASPy family background only makes this story more delicious, but practically speaking, he probably is culturally Hispanic, and of course there's nothing wrong with that. What we should be interested in is the fact that, as governor, he supported conservative policies, and has a long history of rejecting identity politics. For that, at least, we should be saying ¡Viva Jeb!