When potential presidential hopeful Jeb Bush said last weekend that illegal immigration was not a felony, but instead often an "act of love," he was surely braced for the blowback from conservatives. And it has come.
But on Sunday, the latest rebuke was among the gentlest, and that could suggest that the entire tone of the conversation will change next year.
Speaking to ABC News on Sunday, Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky said Mr. Bush "might have been more artful, maybe, in the way he presented this," adding that the problem with Bush's views are that "we can't invite the whole world."
Senator Paul appears to have his own designs on a White House run in 2016, and he knows that advocating for immigrants who come into the United States illegally is hardly the way into the hearts of most Republican voters. Indeed, Paul was speaking to ABC News from a conservative summit in New Hampshire, where he appeared to be testing the presidential waters with other hopefuls such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
This was not the time or the place to go soft on illegal immigration.
Yet Paul kept the flamethrower in the closet. He charitably suggested that Bush was not "terrible" for making the comment and added that "people who seek the American Dream are not bad people."
After all, Paul is not Senator Cruz, whose presidential bid is predicated on turning the Republican base into a quivering ball of outrage. But he's also not Bush, an electable establishment moderate who appears to be thumbing his nose at the tea party right.
He is attempting to inhabit that infinitesimal space between the two that Mitt Romney navigated so awkwardly as a presidential candidate in 2012.
While Mr. Romney had to tack right from his moderate positions as governor of Massachusetts, Paul will have to tack somewhat to the center if he's to win establishment support and entertain any realistic hope of winning the Republican nomination, much less the presidency.
Because the Republican establishment knows one thing: It's all well and good to take a hard line against illegal immigration now, but 2016 could be another matter entirely.
Right now, with a midterm election looming, all this talk of getting tough on illegal immigration won't hurt Republicans much. It might even help. The profile of people who show up to vote in midterms is older and whiter – in short, the very sort of people most likely to be against illegal immigration. That's one reason Republicans in the House can hold up immigration reform without inflicting a political cost on their party.
But the profile of the average presidential election voter is younger and browner.
In other words, if only the midterm election voters had turned out in 2012, we would have a President Romney now. But that's not what happened, and President Obama routed Romney with huge support from Hispanics, African-Americans, and young Americans.
So on Nov. 5, the day after the 2014 midterm elections are over, the political calculus will change.
The Republican establishment knows it must start making inroads with Hispanics if it wants to win the White House again. That's one big reason Bush – a fluent Spanish-speaker married to a Mexican wife – has had something of a renaissance in the past few weeks. And it is perhaps one reason Paul went after Bush with kid gloves Sunday.
At the moment, amid the giddiness of an apparent Republican wave coming this November, he'd win huge applause among conservatives for taking on Bush more strongly.
Were he to somehow win the Republican nomination in 2016, however, those applause lines would become a Hillary Clinton ads.