An Immigration Fight Gives Jeb Bush His Best Moment Of The Entire Debate Season

"Even having this conversation sends a powerful signal."

The Republican rift over immigration produced an early clash in Tuesday night’s debate. It may also have produced something we haven’t seen yet: A strong performance by Jeb Bush.

Early on, Donald Trump got a question about immigration and gave his usual response: He’d build a wall, then work on deporting undocumented people already here.

Then things got interesting. Ohio Gov. John Kasich said Trump’s plan was wildly unrealistic, because deporting the 11.3 million undocumented immigrants was simply not possible. Bush, the former Florida governor, joined the assault, saying that Trump’s argument was not merely bad policy. It was also, Bush said, bad politics.

"It would send a signal that we're not the kind of country that I know America is,” Bush said. "Even having this conversation sends a powerful signal. They're doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this. That's the problem with this.”

Bush went on to say that Trump’s rhetoric is sure to alienate Latino voters, whose support Republicans need to win national elections.

Who won the exchange? That’s a subjective question, obviously, and it depends a lot on what you think about immigration policy.

But, purely on the merits, Trump’s argument was weak. He defended his call for mass deportations by citing “operation wetback” -- a mass deportation operation that President Dwight Eisenhower administered in the 1950s. But, as HuffPost’s Elise Foley has noted, those deportations didn’t come close to matching the scale of what Trump proposes. Official estimates suggest it resulted in 2.1 million deportations, but many experts believe that number was inflated. Meanwhile, some of the people the government deported were actually U.S. citizens.

And as campaign theater goes, Kasich and Bush seemed to equal Trump in confidence and energy, which is no small feat. In fact, Bush’s answer seemed to be the sharpest one he’s given in this entire debate season.

Maybe that’s because Bush wasn’t trying to make a clumsy, pre-prepared attack on a rival -- or playing to the sentiments of the far right wing. On the contrary, he was making the case for something he’s believed all along: That, on immigration, the Republican Party needs to be both more practical and more humane.

See the latest updates on the GOP debate here.

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