Puerto Rican statehood is not likely an issue on many voters’ minds as the country inches towards the 2016 presidential primary season. However, while on a trip to Puerto Rico this week, Jeb Bush reportedly made his support for statehood a centerpiece of his message:
“Puerto Rican citizens, U.S. citizens, ought to have the right to determine whether they want to be a state. I think statehood is the best path, personally,” he said at Universidad Metropolitana de Cupey in San Juan. “I have believed that for a long, long while. I’m not new to this.”
Bush said the next president should “use their influence” to make sure Congress takes an up or down vote on statehood. “This should be a question of self-determination,” he said. “That’s just a question of principle and morality, I think. It’s not a question of politics.”
While this may not be a question of politics for Bush, there may certainly be political benefits for his support of statehood. A survey taken last summer of Puerto Rican residents in Florida, for instance, found that 64 percent preferred statehood as the best option to resolve Puerto Rico’s current status. Seeing as Puerto Ricans comprise a not insignificant share of the vote in Florida, an important primary state, this issue ought not to be taken lightly.
And as for conservatives concerned that Puerto Rican statehood would be more of a benefit to Democrats than Republicans, I would hasten to add that this same survey showed that Puerto Rican voters are generally socially conservative and may be a more natural fit for the GOP:
Both by registration and by reported usual voting respondents reported being Democrats by large margins. Specifically: 55% report registering as Democrats, compared to only 19% who register as Republicans. […]
However, when we asked respondents about their ideology we found they were quite conservative. Unlike most Democrats, most I-4 Puerto Ricans reported they were conservatives (48%), rather than liberals (17%); the remainder (29%) considered themselves moderates. While respondents who report registering as Republicans are substantially more conservative than their Democratic counter-parts, a very significant proportion of the registered Democrats (43%) in our sample also said they were conservatives.
Beyond the politics of the question, however, Jeb Bush is correct to argue that, foundationally and morally, the cause of Puerto Rican statehood is a conservative one. In this, he is in agreement with another famous former Republican governor and presidential candidate, as I noted in a post last fall:
On February 11, 1980, the Republican nominee for president, Ronald Reagan, took to the pages of The Wall Street Journal to renew his commitment to statehood for Puerto Rico if its citizens desired it. He argued, “We cannot expect our foreign policies to be enjoying prestige around the world – attracting support instead of collapsing – when we are having serious problems with our closest neighbors.”
As Reagan alluded to in his op-ed, Puerto Rico’s status quo runs contrary to the principles our nation professes to uphold. America claims to support democracy and self-determination abroad, and yet the U.S. continues to hold as a territory an island of over three million people. Puerto Ricans are United States citizens, subject to federal laws, and serve in the armed forces defending our country; yet they cannot vote in federal elections and do not have a voting representative in Congress.
Regardless of personal interests…conservatives ought to support Puerto Rican statehood on principle. The citizens of Puerto Rico have spoken loudly and clearly in favor of ending the island’s territorial status and being admitted to the U.S. as a new state, and it is now the responsibility of Congress to act on this statement. Continuing to ignore it would be a dereliction of duty and a serious betrayal of America’s founding principles.
Jeb Bush has taken a stand. Will any other candidates follow his lead?
Paul Dupont is a legislative assistant for American Principles in Action.