Immigration Battle Could Decide GOP's Future
April 2, 2006
The furor over immigration that is raging in Congress, on radio talk shows, on cable TV shoutfests, and in the conservative blogosphere is actually a high-stakes duel over the image and direction of the Republican Party.
Two powerful factions of the GOP coalition are warring openly - a clash that threatens to further imperil the party's shaky prospects for success in the November congressional elections, while exacerbating internal tensions that could reignite during the 2008 presidential primaries.
The business lobby, which pumps big bucks into the GOP, wants a new law that would enable 11 million illegal immigrants to stay here and work.
But if Congress goes that route, it risks prompting millions of grass-roots conservatives (already angry at President Bush's lavish federal spending, his Dubai ports deal, and other perceived missteps) to boycott Election Day.
The party can ill afford a revolt by its base, especially since most independent voters, soured by the war in Iraq, don't seem enthused about voting GOP. Kellyanne Conway, a conservative Republican pollster and strategist, said by phone Friday that a boycott is no idle threat: "This year, more and more would-be Republican voters are glomming on to any excuse they can find to stay home and send a message.
If I was a Republican leader, I'd be very careful about banging on that beehive too many times. The immigration issue could be one more excuse to stay home." These conservatives, furious about the "guest worker" ideas being floated in the Senate, generally want illegal immigrants treated as lawbreakers and sent home - but that idea is perilous, as well.
If Congress says yes, it risks sending a broadly anti-Hispanic message that could alienate the increasingly numerous Latino voters whom Bush and Karl Rove view as crucial to their party's future. Either way, "this is an issue fraught with great political danger," Conway said. And David Frum, a former Bush White House speechwriter, was even blunter on his blog: "Immigration truly is emerging as an issue that can shatter the Republican Party."
If Bush were politically healthy right now, perhaps the conflict would be quickly resolved in his favor (he's with the business lobby).
But he has been undercut by an unpopular war, and by Republican attacks on his managerial and political competence, notably concerning Katrina and the ports deal. Factor in the early maneuvering for the 2008 nomination, and you're left with a president at odds with his own party base, and at pains to steer the debate. Matthew Continetti, a conservative analyst who is finishing a book on the Republican Party, said Friday: "President Bush deserves some credit for trying to take this issue on. He's the first president to basically say, `Look, the illegals are real people, who are here for a reason.'
But Bush's weakened status has done damage to his position." This is all about clashing Republican priorities. Bush, with his business orientation, is an open-borders free-trader who wants to expand the party's reach to Latinos, the nation's fastest-growing electorate. (Latinos constituted 3 percent of all voters in 1980, and roughly 8 percent in 2004.)
And Bush himself has made inroads; in 2004, he garnered 44 percent of the Latino vote, more than double the percentage that GOP candidate Bob Dole drew eight years earlier. Continetti said that Bush's approach is in the Reagan tradition: "It's the difference between an optimistic message and a pessimistic message. The optimistic message is pro-Latino and inclusive.
The pessimistic message is, `Build a wall.' And one thing we know is, optimistic messages win." Grover Norquist, the prominent Washington conservative activist, seconds that argument. He said, "I think we need more immigrants, not less. ... We need to be careful. Republicans can't do to Hispanics what they did to Roman Catholics 100 years ago" - when a prominent Protestant minister, flanked by the Republican presidential candidate at the climax of the 1884 campaign, declared that the GOP was not the party of "Romanism."
Irish-American voters in New York City were enraged; the GOP lost New York state by 1,149 votes, and that tipped the whole race to the Democrats. Moreover, Norquist said, "That comment made Catholics think that Republicans didn't like them. We didn't carry the national Catholic vote until 1994." A Latino analogy can be found in California, just a decade ago.
Republican Gov. Pete Wilson championed a 1994 ballot initiative to deny public benefits to illegal immigrants and kick their children out of the schools. Result: By 1996, every Republican leader in state government had been swept out of office, and the California GOP has yet to recover.
The reason: Latino voters saw the GOP message as an insult to all immigrants - and many white independent voters saw the message as broadly intolerant. Last November, it happened again.
Jerry Kilgore, the GOP candidate for governor of Virginia, ran harsh anti-immigrant TV ads in his bid to rally the conservative base - and was trounced anyway. "He had his head handed to him," said Mark Rozell, a political analyst based at George Mason University in Virginia. "The lesson was that the real core of the conservative base is not big enough to win elections, even in a red state.
Kilgore lost suburban counties that Republicans never lose. An anti-immigrant message turns off voters in the middle. So Republicans will have to think seriously about how they handle this issue."
But the GOP's angry conservatives are convinced they are right on the merits of the issue - they see illegal immigrants as threats to the nation's cultural identity, as well as a burden on our social services - and faithful to core Republican precepts.
Conway, advocating a crackdown on illegal immigrants, said: "Isn't it a core principle of conservatism and the Republican Party to stress the importance of the rule of law?
Most people don't believe that illegal behavior should be rewarded with ostrichlike behavior." The conservative talk show hosts, who have been stoking the issue, go a tad further than Conway.
Here's Atlanta-based Neal Boortz, last week: "Just where do we store 11 million Hispanics, just waiting to ship 'em back ... ? Where do we store 'em? ... The Superdome! Exactly. And the Astrodome in Houston, that's where we'll put 'em. We've got practice."
They argue that conservatives, by their involvement or absence, will play a key role in congressional races, because many districts are sensitive to small swings in turnout. That's what happened when the Democrats lost Congress in November 1994; a large and pivotal share of their voters simply stayed home.
Moreover, the conservatives cite new polls that appear to show that a majority of Americans side with them on immigration. Case in point: the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which reported Thursday that, by 53 percent to 40 percent, Americans want illegal immigrants to go home.
And a new Time poll, released Friday, finds that 75 percent think illegal immigrants should be denied access to government services.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who wants to run for president, is wooing those conservatives with his own crackdown bill, mindful they'll vote heavily in the primaries - while fully aware that his chief 2008 rival, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is in the guest-worker camp and thus perhaps vulnerable to a conservative backlash.
But, as with so many complex issues, public sentiment seems to hinge on the framing of the question. The same Time poll sought to gauge support for the House bill that would make it a crime for illegal immigrants to be here and force their deportation.
Only 25 percent signed on to that; 72 percent endorsed temporary work visas.
The likeliest scenario is that the Republicans will simply postpone a resolution until after Election Day - in part because they frankly aren't sure how to fuse the warring factions. In the words of strategist Rich Galen: "Here's what I think about the immigration issue: I don't know what I think."
Source: (c) 2006, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.