Jeb Bush must speak truth to GOP voters

Story highlights

  • Jeb Bush attended this year's Conservative Political Action Conference
  • Ruben Navarrette: Latinos want to see if Bush stands up to pressure from extremists

Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)When Jeb Bush spoke last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, the likely GOP presidential hopeful did better than expected.

Of course, that could have been because expectations were so low.
You remember "Bush Derangement Syndrome." When George W. Bush was president, it afflicted liberals who thought the chief executive couldn't do anything right. Now that Jeb might run for president in 2016, the condition vexes conservatives who believe that when it comes to choosing the GOP nominee, the former Florida governor is all wrong.
    During Bush's speech, a few dozen supporters of Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky -- wearing red T-shirts with the words "Stand With Rand" -- walked out and later blasted Bush as insufficiently conservative.
    But what should really count for a lot is that Bush is sufficiently competent. He's the grownup in a roomful of extremists who -- as they compare union members to ISIS (Scott Walker) or vow to abolish the IRS (Ted Cruz) or bash the media (Chris Christie) -- seem most interested in applause lines.
    Bush is a serious person with a serious shot at the presidency, something that you just can't say about all Republicans who appear to be running.
    As someone who is bilingual and whose wife hails from Mexico, Bush can hit Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, where it hurts by carving into her Latino support. In his 1998 gubernatorial election, and 2002 re-election, Bush received over 60 percent of the Latino vote.
    And it's no secret that, for many Latinos who might vote for Bush, the make-or-break issue is immigration.
    That's because many Latinos see immigration as a way of determining a candidate's character. Latinos will be watching to see if Bush stands up to the pressure from extremists to join the GOP's closed border chorus. They're used to being thrown under the bus by politicians who sacrifice Latinos to gin up support from non-Latinos. And they won't put up with it.
    So which way is Bush going to go on immigration?
    For many years, he extolled the contributions of immigrants and expressed dismay that elements of his party are closed-minded and mean-spirited on the issue. He even acknowledged that, to many, the party is seen as "anti-immigrant."
    Lately, though, Bush has injected more nuance into his views -- and turned them mushy in the process.
    On the question of whether undocumented youth should have a path to citizenship, for example, Bush at first supported the idea, then he opposed it. And most recently, he has said that he could support such a path if Congress mandates it.
    On the Arizona immigration law, Bush apparently likes the concept of enlisting local police to be "the eyes and ears" of the border patrol. But he has also been sympathetic to critics who worry that this will lead to ethnic profiling of Latinos.
    Too often, Bush leaves the impression that he'll say whatever he needs to say to avoid conflict.
    So it was actually refreshing to see Bush use his appearance at CPAC -- which took the form of an onstage interview by conservative talk show host Sean Hannity -- to once again speak plainly. In response to questions, Bush emphasized the need to secure the U.S. border, insisted that immigration policy should be driven by economic concerns and the need for high-skilled immigrants, and reaffirmed support for giving undocumented immigrants driver's licenses and in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.
    The crowd booed that last one.
    Bush criticized President Obama's executive actions to prioritize deportations, but also bashed Republicans in Congress for protesting that policy by holding up funds for the Department of Homeland Security.
    Finally, in response to what is often the most contentious aspect of this debate, Bush also stressed the need to create a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants who are currently in the United States.
    "I know there's disagreement here," he said. "The simple fact is that there is no plan to deport 11 million people. We should give them a path to legal status where they work...and contribute to our society."
    More boos.
    The way Bush sees it, the GOP is good at being against things but "we have to start being for things again."
    In response to a heckler, Bush stared out into the crowd to address his critic.
    "I'm marking you down as neutral," he told the heckler. "I'll look forward to being your second choice."
    Not even close. In the Washington Times/CPAC presidential preference straw poll of 3,007 participants, Bush came in fifth out of 17 candidates with just 8 percent of the vote. First place went to Rand Paul, who earned 25.7 percent.
    Clearly, Bush has a long way to go in convincing conservatives that he's their best choice. But his appearance at CPAC set exactly the right tone.
    Voters in both parties have plenty of candidates telling them what they want to hear just to get their support. What they need are more candidates who tell them what they need to hear: the truth. That won't make the candidates popular. But it does make them credible.
    Score 1 for Bush.