The Republican schism on the immigration issue was on stark display this morning.
On ABC, Senator Arlen Specter took the basic President Bush position and extolled the 11 million illegal immigrants as folks "who are doing jobs no else wants to do." But he was challenged by a spokesman for the party's right wing, Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo, who said it should be a crime for anyone to provide even humanitarian assistance to the illegals.
With conservatives like Tancredo assailing these immigrants - he calls them "a scourge that threatens the very future of our nation" - it's no wonder that the GOP risks alienating the Hispanic electorate.
That wouldn't be politically wise, since Hispanics are the fastest-growing voter cohort in America. The business wing of the GOP wants to keep the illegals here because it values their labor - and the business wing's top ally in Washington, President Bush, would love to set up a path to citizenship in part because he and strategist Karl Rove believe that the steady growth of the GOP requires a steady influx of Hispanic voters.
But Bush is having trouble with his right flank. In the recent words of conservative columnist David Brooks, the Republican right seem poised "to walk off a cliff on the subject of immigration." Indeed, half a million people took to the streets in California yesterday, to protest GOP crackdown proposals, and new mass protests are in the works for April 10.
Watching Tancredo yesterday, I was reminded of a conversation that I had in California, back in 1997, with an Hispanic guy who worked for a plumbing contractor in Santa Ana. His name was John Raya. He had watched as California Republicans sought to demonize immigrants in that state, during the '94 and '96 election seasons, and he was fed up.
He said (I am quoting here from my old notes): "Talk to me about lower taxes and safe streets. Don't talk to me about immigrant bashing. I tell Republicans I know, 'You guys have been giving Democrats the best recruiting tool since the Kennedys were alive.'...I used to try to talk up the Republicans to other Latinos, but I can't handle it now. I'm a proud guy. I don't want to be cannon fodder anymore."
Thanks to their mid-'90s bashing of immigrants, the California Republicans suffered huge electoral losses from which they have never recovered. That's the same risk that the GOP is taking nationwide, if its conservative wing succeeds in making itself the face of the party. But Republicans risk alienating not just Hispanics, but members of the broader Catholic community as well. Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahoney and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops don't believe it should be a federal crime to help illegal immigrants. But that's the essence of a bill currently on tap in the House.
You know that the GOP is in trouble on an issue when it affords Hillary Clinton the opportunity to jump in and take the high road on God; witness what she said the other day. The proposed ban on humanitarian assistance, she contended, "is certainly not in keeping with my understanding of the Scripture..."
On ABC today, Tancredo was delighted to take a swipe at Hillary: "I'm not really surprised that Hillary Clinton doesn't know the first thing about the Bible." But, in fact, the Bible is full of passages that urge mercy for the unrooted; as Isiah 49:10 says, "He who has compassion on them will guide them and lead them besides springs of water."
So what will Bush do? Does he have enough political capital at this point to face down the anti-immigrant wing of his own party and insist (as Specter did today) that illegals need some kind of path to citizenship? Or, given the current disenchantment among conservative voters on a whole range of issues, does he not want to risk provoking them to stay home on election day 2006?
But let us not assume that the GOP is the only party with internal strains these days on hot-button issues.
In today's Inquirer, I wrote a print column about the GOP's current discomforts on abortion, in the wake of the new South Dakota law that bans all abortions unless the woman is dying. But Democratic leaders have their own problems; for more than a year, they have been trying to distance themselves from the "choice" banner, in order to woo culturally conservative voters. For instance, they have recruited anti-abortion stalwart Bob Casey Jr. to run for the Senate in Pennsylvania. But the strains are obvious, because abortion-rights women are threatening to sit the race out, and others contend that the distancing from the choice stance will make it tougher for Democrats to fight the repercussions of South Dakota.
So, in the interests of fairness, here's what I wrote last year about the Democrats and abortion.