Monday, May 21, 2007

The GOP's immigration detonation

The ticking time bomb has finally detonated.

It has been clear, for some time now, that the immigration issue had the potential to wreak havoc within the increasingly fragile Republican coalition. Big business (and President Bush) want to let the 12 million illegals stay in America and earn their path to citizenship as guest workers; by contrast, the GOP’s conservative base assails anything that smacks of “amnesty,” and insists that the U.S. safeguard its borders in by kicking the illegals out of the country.

Now we have the Senate compromise bill, which does a little of both. But the noxious bottom line, in the eyes of infuriated GOP conservatives, is that the deal offers legal status to most of those 12 million people, and that provision alone is grist for outrage. The result is that Republicans now have yet another reason to fight among themselves, at a time of political weakness when they can ill afford further discord. Worse yet, this issue is a potential loser for many of the ’08 presidential contenders, as I will explain below.

Here’s a general take on the current GOP mood, in the wake of the immigration deal: “Republicans were already vulnerable due to Iraq, Scooter Libby’s indictment, corruption, Jack Abramoff, high gas prices, massive deficits, Homeland Security employes arrested on child porn charges, the loss of good jobs, and the generic Second Term Blues faced by most presidents. Did they really need to also fight amongst themselves with this? The more conservatives spend fighting each other, the less chance they have to do damage to (Democrats).” In other words, for Republicans, the proposed guest-worker law is a “textbook definition of a disaster.”

That assessment comes from the conservatives at the National Review.

Now let’s look at how the immigration issue puts the squeeze on most of the serious ’08 contenders. Two of them look like flip-flopping opportunists; another looks like a man of principle who will suffer as a result:

Rudy Giuliani. He’s stuck between his old support for illegal immigrants, and his current need to curry favor with those outraged Republican conservatives (many of whom will vote in the early ’08 primaries). As mayor of New York back in 1996, he sued in court to block new federal provisions that were designed to bar illegals from seeking public services; Giulani, who at the time styled himself as a prominent national defender of immigrants, contended that those provisions would merely “terrorize people.” Yet today, anxious not to incur conservative wrath, he has dumped his previous convictions. He is saying virtually nothing about the Senate immigration deal, aside from boilerplate about how his first priority is “to ensure our borders are secure.”

Mitt Romney. Unlike Giuliani, who has simply muzzled his old stance, Romney has seamlessly switched sides. A mere year ago, Romney told a reporter: “Those that are here paying taxes and not taking government benefits should begin a process toward application for citizenship, as they would from their home country." In other words, he didn’t believe in simply kicking out the illegals. Moreover, when the Senate last year was weighing a reform measure that contained provisions more liberal than those in the current deal, Romney said publicly that the ’06 effort was “reasonable.” But that was then, and this is now. Spying an opportunity to toss red meat to the base, he now declares that “any legislation that allows illegal immigrants to stay in the country indefinitely…is a form of amnesty.”

John McCain. I have remarked frequently, in this space, about his frequent rightward pandering, much of which has undercut his “straight talk” reputation. But on the immigration issue, he has essentially stood firm. He has long been a key Senate player in favor of guest-worker reform, he risked conservative base wrath last week by sharing a Washington podium with fellow reformer Ted Kennedy, and he spoke favorably (albeit briefly) about a guest-worker program during last Tuesday’s GOP candidate debate. The result is that top conservative activists now say he is “toast.” In the words of Minneapolis attorney Scott Johnson, a prominent conservative blogger: “"It seems to me that for those of us who have kept an open mind on Senator McCain, hoping that he might pay us that minimal respect, the time has come to check out on his candidacy. Claiming paternity of the prospective immigration amnesty along with (Kennedy), Senator McCain has saved me the traditional buyer's remorse. Pending further developments, I've narrowed the field of acceptable Republican candidates. I'm opting for Anybody But McCain."

McCain is clearly bugged by Romney's repositioning on immigration. In a conference call with bloggers today, McCain said: "Maybe I should wait a couple weeks and see if (Romney's stance) changes. Maybe he can get out his small varmint gun and drive those Guatemalans off his yard." (McCain was going for a three-fer: swiping at Romney for flip-flopping, ridiculing Romney for his recent claim that he went hunting a few times, and resurrecting the recent story about how Romney once had illegal immigrants landscaping his suburban Boston home.)

Meanwhile, down in the second tier, Sam Brownback – renowned in some conservative circles as a conviction politician – is now telling people that he was for guest-worker reform before he was against it. In an earlier incarnation, he was one of the seven original sponsors of the liberal provisions floated by McCain and Kennedy. But now he’s insisting that the Senate deal is a menace to America. Could his new stance have anything to do with the need to woo conservative primary voters? His spokesman says no, of course not; the real reason, he claims, is that Brownback simply doesn’t trust “the Democrat Senate” to craft the best possible law.

Meanwhile, on the sidelines, Newt Gingrich and Fred Thompson are condemning the deal in language echoing the conservative base. Perhaps that’s the smart politics at the moment, because, as National Review Online contends, “the top tier GOP candidate…who best channels the base’s seething outrage over this deal gets the nomination.” But the spectacle of pandering and flip-flopping candidates, competing for the favor of grassroots voters who are at odds with their own party establishment and White House, is hardly the prescription for Republican harmony.

As one noted observer put it the other day, “Even before the deal, Democrats entered the 2008 cycle unified and energized; Republicans, divided and demoralized. The president and the (GOP) senators have now managed to divide and demoralize their party even further…And triggering an internecine party conflict on the eve of a difficult and dangerous election is no way to re-elect a damaged incumbent party.”

So says conservative scholar David Frum, a former speechwriter for President Bush.


Speaking of the GOP, who could have ever dreamed that the party would field so many candidates with so many divorces? Times have changed in the party of "family values." I dealt with this development in my latest Sunday print column.