alien & sedition.
Thursday, May 24, 2007
  Impaled by Immigration Again

People keep pointing out -- correctly -- that immigration is an issue that should divide Democrats as well as Republicans. Yet it's the Republicans who keep finding themselves on the pointy end of the wedge.

In part that probably has to do with the parties' contrasting philosphies - differences over the issue are mitigated somewhat when everyone agrees on the importance of unionization and a strong social safety net. But it also has to do with political circumstances -- specifically, the role of a Republican White House dedicated to the pursuit of Hispanic votes (if no longer for itself, then for its own strategists' plan for the future of the GOP national majority).

Conservative pundits are looking at the McCain-Kennedy bill with alarm (though, to be fair, the bill has critics from across the political spectrum). At NRO, for instance, the Editors are freaking out over the notion that the bill's "probationary status" and "extreme hardship" provisions will effectively grant amnesty to undocumented aliens the very day the bill passes, regardless of the administration's claims about enforcement; Stanley Kurtz, meanwhile, thinks the fiendishly clever Ted Kennedy is suckering Republicans by promising them a move from family-based immigration to a skills-based points system that will never actually happen.

Whatever becomes of the current bill, on a larger level the Republicans continue to find themselves on the horns of rather ugly dilemma. It isn't the philosophical debate causing them so much trouble, of course, it's the political problem. Fred Siegel compares the issue to the Dubai ports controversy, in that once again "the Bush administration seems to be undermining its own core principles by failing to put security first." That analysis does beg the question of whether "putting security first" really is the administration's core principle, as opposed to, say, political self-interest (it also begs the question of whether "security" is really the best paradigm from which to approach the issue). Still, it's an interesting comparison inasmuch as one could argue that, either way, both cases involve the White House acting irrationally against its own prime directive.

An anonymous NRO contributor illustrates the supposed political irrationality at work in a satirical "memo" from one "H. Dean to HRC." This mysterious Mr. Dean is delighted by the Bush administration's support for immigration reform, arguing that "the Republicans are handing us the future on a silver platter.... The 'bi-partisan McCain-Kennedy plan' seemed almost deliberately designed to help Democrats and hurt Republicans." Why?
First and foremost, most Hispanics are Democrats.... The record shows that since the Second World War, the Hispanic community has supported Democrats for president ranging from a high of nearly 90 percent for their fellow Catholic JFK to a low of 60 percent for Mondale, McGovern, and Kerry, for an average of roughly 2 to 1 Democratic. So any amnesty plan will create more Democratic than Republican voters in the foreseeable future. It took the last wave of Catholic immigrants — from the Irish famine refugees of the 1840s and Southern/Eastern workers of the post-Civil War era — nearly a century to consider voting Republican for Ike in the 1950s. Now a similar scenario is being set up again.
Morevoer, the issue divides Republicans and will undoutedly lead to more business support for Democrats. What does it all add up to?
The likely end result of this will be a nasty fight in the Republican primaries of 2008, an alienated business community, very few Hispanic Republicans, more Democrats, and a depressed GOP base. The textbook definition of a disaster is getting the worst of all worlds.
Ross Douthat argues that Bush's strategists correctly diagnosed the GOP's major problem, but they've prescribed the wrong cure:
The GOP can build a political majority around the married, Middle-American middle class, but not if it remains a lily-white party: It needs larger percentages of the Hispanic and yes, the African-American vote to offset the growing Democratic advantage among white, socially-liberal Bobo voters who might have been Reaganites a generation ago.... Bush's insight in this regard was correct, but his strategy for winning a larger share of the minority vote rests on three wobbly pillars - gay marriage, which won him Ohio in '04 but won't be a national issue for much longer; the war, which worked until it became clear how badly he mismanaged it; and amnesty for illegal immigrants, which is aimed at precisely the wrong part of the Hispanic demographic. There's no evidence that middle-class Hispanics, the people the GOP needs to woo, are likely to reward the Republicans for legalizing millions of maids, dishwashers, and migrant laborers, and the migrant laborers themselves certainly aren't going to vote for the GOP anytime soon.
And thus we arrive at the Big Question that seems to drive much of the right's internal debate over immigration: are Hispanics natural Democrats or natural Republicans? Douthat suggests that "they're like any immigrant population, natural Democrats while they're in the barrio and natural Republicans once they've reached the suburbs." Our anonymous satirist, on the other hand, argues that "even if Rove’s vision of middle class Hispanics eventually turning Republican is true, at best, they’ll be a swing vote replacing older whites in the Sun Belt who have voted 2-1 Republican in the last generation."

It's unclear what the anonymous paleocon would have Republicans do to combat their central demographic problem -- though he doesn't in fact appear to view it as a problem in itself. It's not that he doesn't explicitly acknowledge that the GOP is a "white Christian" party; he seems to believe that this is the party's strength, and the more Republicans seek to diversify their party, the more they will alienate their base. This is undoubtedly true in the short term, but it's this short-term calculation that is crippling the Bush administration's effort to plan for the long-term health of the GOP coalition.

And here let's return to the wider project of compassionate conservatism, which was designed to solve a number of political dilemmas for the Republicans. Some of these were immediate -- for instance the need for Bush to disassociate himself from unpopular Republican congressional leaders. But some were long-term, particularly two linked issues: changing American demographics and the public's rejection of Republican anti-government ideology. The strategy has largely failed because of its own inherent limitations, but also because it comprehensively antagonized so much of the Republican establishment, which establishment was itself the product of 40 years of anti-government, pro-white Christian movement-building. I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that the current immigration debate is one last reprise of the right's Wars of Compassionate Conservatism.

The big question, though: if the conflict has been a conservative civil war, which side represents the Lost Cause?

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