THE HOUSE CAUCUS TO RETURN THE REPUBLICAN PARTY TO MINORITY STATUS--also known as the House Immigration Reform Caucus--held a press conference Thursday. The GOP solons were upset. The Senate Judiciary Committee had not followed the lead of the House in adopting an "enforcement only" immigration bill. The committee had reported out a sensible and comprehensive immigration bill that includes border security measures, a guest worker program, and, for illegal immigrants already here, a path towards earned legalization and citizenship.
California representative Dana Rohrabacher decried the Senate's guest worker proposal as "the foul odor that's coming out of the United States Senate." After all, he explained, if illegal aliens who do many farm jobs were deported, "the millions of young men who are prisoners around our country can pick the fruits and vegetables. I say, let the prisoners pick the fruits." (I am not making this up.) Though the House bill has no flag-related provision to my knowledge, Virginia representative Virgil Goode nonetheless weighed in, "I say if you are here illegally and want to fly the Mexican flag, go to Mexico and wave the American flag."
But the press conference was not heavy on substantive policy argument. Much of it had to do with the political ramifications of the immigration issue. Colorado representative Tom Tancredo explained that President Bush didn't understand the electoral dynamics, and lamented, "Although he's not running for reelection, I wish he would think about his party." Rep. Rohrabacher predicted that Senator McCain and other immigration supporters will find their careers cut short. Iowa representative Steve King provided the rhetorical climax of the press gathering when he claimed that the current Senate Judiciary bill is really an amnesty bill (it isn't), and thundered, "Anybody that votes for an amnesty bill deserves to be branded with a scarlet letter, 'A' for amnesty, and they need to pay for it at the ballot box in November."
Okay. Let's not talk about substance--since the pro-immigration forces have in fact been winning that debate easily. Let's talk about ballot boxes.
Dana Rohrabacher has represented a safe GOP seat in Orange County for almost two decades. He's chosen never to run statewide. In California, Republican governor Pete Wilson exploited the immigration issue to help get reelected in 1994, and the voters passed a Republican-backed anti-immigration measure, proposition 187. No Republican candidate except the idiosyncratic Arnold Schwarzenegger has won statewide since.
Virgil Goode has a safe GOP seat in Southside Virginia. He's never run statewide. Last fall, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Jerry Kilgore, tried to exploit illegal immigration by denouncing a local community that wanted to build a shelter that might accommodate some illegals. He lost, in a red state, a race he had been favored to win.
Anti-immigration yahoo Tom Tancredo carried the sixth district of Colorado comfortably in 2004 (though running slightly behind pro-immigration George W. Bush). But in Tancredo's state, the GOP did miserably in 2004, with Democrat Ken Salazar winning the Senate seat and Democrats gaining control of both houses of the legislature. Meanwhile, in the safe fifth district of Iowa, Steve King did run two points ahead of George W. Bush in 2004. King was able to outspend his challenger 10-1, while Bush faced a huge Kerry effort in that swing state.
Four GOP senators voted in the Senate Judiciary Committee for the comprehensive immigration bill these blustering House members believe is electoral suicide: Arlen Specter, elected and reelected in blue state Pennsylvania; Mike DeWine, elected and reelected in swing state Ohio; and Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, and Sam Brownback from Kansas--both very popular in their red states. John McCain, lead sponsor of a bill that resembles the Senate Judiciary Committee bill, has a pretty impressive electoral record in Arizona, a competitive state. George W. Bush, a pro-immigration Republican, has won two presidential elections--as did another pro-immigration Republican, Ronald Reagan.
The American people are worried about immigration. In a Pew Survey released last week, 52 percent of Americans saw immigration as a burden, while 41 percent said it strengthened the country; 53 percent support sending illegals home, while 40 percent endorsed a path to citizenship. Given the hoopla about illegal immigration, this division is in fact surprisingly close. In any case, it means GOP senators and congressmen--and presidents--have plenty of room to show leadership and to resist demagoguery. Most Republican officeholders know that the political--and moral--cost of turning the GOP into an anti-immigration, Know Nothing party would be very great. It could easily dash Republican hopes of becoming a long-term governing party. How many Republicans will have the courage to stand up and prevent the yahoos from driving the party off a cliff?
- William Kristol