Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Cutting and running on immigration reform

This past spring, pollsters began to notice that a growing number of conservative Republicans were bailing out on President Bush -- I noted this trend in a May newspaper column -- and today we are witnessing its effects quite dramatically.

The House Republicans' decision to essentially deep-six Bush's "guest worker" immigration plan -- by scheduling summer "field hearings" that will undoubtedly attract lots of conservative voters who hate the Bush plan -- is a direct rebuke to the leader whom they have previously served so loyally. The House Republicans have basically decided that their best hope for survival, in a tough election year, is to curry favor with these anti-immigrant/enforcement-first voters, and not to bond with a politically weakened president who is not in sync with sentiment in his own base.

By dragging their feet -- by deciding to whip up conservatives and talk radio, instead of hunkering down with their Senate counterparts and crafting a compromise reform law that would at least clarify the status of illegals -- House Republicans have opted to go into campaign mode. Bush has long been pushing a long-term "guest worker" solution, with help from the Senate GOP, but it's clear that the base is taking a different road.

This is vivid evidence of Bush's waning political capital. Bush strategist Karl Rove was trying to sell some small business owners on the guest-worker plan yesterday -- even as a group of notable conservatives publicly called on Bush to drop the plan (which they assail as "amnesty")because it alienates, in their estimation, 85 percent of congressional Republicans.

Indeed, Brian Bilbray, the Republican victor in a special congressional election two weeks ago, apparently won because his pitch for tougher border security -- and his opposition to the Bush plan -- made him acceptable to conservative voters in his California district, not far from the Mexican border. Bilbray didn't exactly mince words; on election eve, he said on the radio: "To the Bush Administration, to the Senate flat out, (my message is) no amnesty. The message ought to be that....What don't you get about the word 'illegal?'"

John Gizzi, a political reporter for the conservative publication Human Events, sampled grassroots conservative opinion in California and detected hostility to the Bush White House on this issue. For instance: "Orange County's Jon Fleischman, editor of the widely-read, on-line political newsletter Flash Report, told me flatly that the Administration's stand on illegal immigration is 'horrible' for the GOP in California. In his words, 'Between its support of amnesty and its support of big government, the Bush Administration does an awful lot to demoralize Republicans out here.' When I asked former State GOP Chairman Shawn Steel if the administration was out of touch on the illegal immigration with party activists, he replied without hesitation: 'Badly. And you hear that phrase, out of touch, all the time at party meetings. That's the view of the vast majority of Republicans here and, if it continues, it will be very destructive to us."

Political survival trumps policy right now. Bush is not on the ballot this year; House Republicans are. They have noticed that the enforcement-first message is polling well among grassroots conservatives (it has become an emotional issue, on a par with Second Amendment gun rights) , and Speaker Dennis Hastert has reportedly conveyed that to the White House. At a time when these voters have become disillusioned with Bush for many reasons, House Republicans don't want to give them another excuse to stay home on election day.

In a sense, this stalemate may have been inevitable, given the fact that the issue splits the GOP coalition, dividing the big-business camp (pro-guest worker) from the conservative base. Nothing is likely to be worked out until after the election. And the stalemate is also a big reminder that it's not only the Democrats (on Iraq) who are divided among themselves; in this particular case, it's the Republicans who, when confronted with the challenge of enacting meaningful immigration reform, have opted to cut and run.