In what appears to be a remarkable about-face, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Monday stepped back from his previous position on immigration reform, telling NBC's Today that he does not support a path to citizenship for immigrants who entered the country illegally. "I think there has to be some difference between people who come here legally and illegally," Bush said. "It is just a matter of common sense and a matter of the rule of law. If we're not going to apply the law fairly and consistently, we're going to have another wave of illegal immigrants coming into the country."

Bush is even more explicit in a forthcoming book called Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution that he co-authored with lawyer Clint Bolick. According to Elise Foley at The Huffington Post, who nabbed a copy of the book before its official publication date, Bush and Bolick write, "It is absolutely vital to the integrity of our immigration system that actions have consequences — in this case, that those who violated the law can remain but cannot obtain the cherished fruits of citizenship." They continue: "To do otherwise would signal once again that people who circumvent the system can still obtain the full benefits of American citizenship."

Technically, Bush says he does support a path to citizenship, but only if undocumented immigrants return to their home countries and apply through legal channels. That is miles away from his previous stance on the issue. As recently as January, Bush and Book wrote the following in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal (emphasis added):

A practicable system of work-based immigration for both high-skilled and low-skilled immigrants — a system that will include a path to citizenship — will help us meet workforce needs, prevent exportation of jobs to foreign countries and protect against the exploitation of workers...

America's immigration system should provide opportunities for people who share the country's core values to become citizens, thereby strengthening the nation as have countless immigrants have before them. [Wall Street Journal]

In addition, Bush spent much of the 2012 presidential campaign criticizing Republicans — and by implication, standard-bearer Mitt Romney — for taking a hard-line stance on immigration. Bush's new position has angered at least one member of the Romney campaign, according to The Miami Herald:

"Where the hell was this Jeb Bush during the campaign?" said one advisor. "He spent all this time criticizing Romney and it turns out he has basically the same position. So he wants people to go back to their country and apply for citizenship? Well, that's self deportation. We got creamed for talking about that. And now Jeb is saying the same thing."

Asked to respond, Bush said by email: "i am not advocating self  deportation. read the book." [Miami Herald]

What is the former Florida governor hoping to accomplish? There was immediate speculation that Bush, who is considered a possible presidential contender in 2016, is seeking to place himself to the right of Sen. Marco Rubio, a fellow Floridian who is leading a bipartisan effort to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would likely include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers. When asked by NBC whether he was running for president, Bush left the door wide open. "I have a voice," he said. "I want to share my beliefs about how the conservative movement and the Republican Party can regain its footing, because we've lost our way." When pressed, he refused to rule out a run. "I won't," he said, "but I'm not going to declare today either."

Others say that Bush's shift reflects the stubborn fact that the GOP is not serious about comprehensive reform, despite Rubio's efforts and the appeals of party leaders (one of whom used to be Bush himself). "If I had to hazard a guess," writes Jamelle Bouie at The American Prospect, "this is another sign Republicans are moving away from comprehensive immigration reform, and towards something more piecemeal and less effective."

And where does that leave Rubio's proposal? According to Benjy Sarlin at Talking Points Memo:

"Wow," Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the liberal Center For American Progress, told TPM in an email. "For a guy who has been a luminary on this issue for the GOP, his endorsement of such a regressive policy is deeply troubling."

The big question going forward, Fitz said, is "whether it cuts Rubio's legs out from under him" by pressuring his right flank, or merely gives Rubio more power within the bipartisan gang negotiating a bill by demonstrating that conservative concerns about a bill are still a major hurdle that only he can address. [Talking Points Memo]