GOP Gethsemane

Published on December 11th, 2008

Republican deliverance rests in immigration policy

By Mark Cromer
December 11, 2008

Memo to the Democrats: Please remember to keep Karl Rove high on your holiday gift list this year. Your conundrum, of course, is what to get the man that handed you the death warrant for the Republican Party—with a bright red, white and green ribbon on top.

As President Bush’s chief strategist (or, less charitably, his Rasputin) who oversaw the marriage of political goals to White House policy initiatives, Rove was more responsible than any other member of the administration for the delusional immigration policy that the president doggedly pursued throughout his eight years in office.

The disgraceful twin hallmarks of that policy, carried out with the nation locked in a bloody war against terrorists, remains a violently unsecured border and the demand for an epic mass amnesty of illegal immigrants unprecedented in the history of nations.

Somewhere between the lowball figure of 4 million to the more realistic estimate of 12 to 16 million illegal immigrants crossed our borders during Bush’s eight years in office.

But instead of seeing such a Biblical exodus of economic refugees from the corrupt and failed state of Mexico as the growing crisis that it is for working American citizens, Rove read the tea leaves for Bush and interpreted them as a political opportunity. At its core, the policy crafted by Rove and executed by Bush represents the absolute triumph of cold political calculation over the national interest; the crass subverting of sovereignty to the greed of profiteers.

Hailed among party leaders as “The Architect” for his skilled management of Bush’s gubernatorial and presidential victories, Rove envisioned a Republican dynasty in Washington that relied on the linchpin of the Hispanic vote—a rare demographic that was ostensibly still up for grabs. According to a Pew Hispanic Center study, Latinos accounted for less than 10-percent of all registered voters in the nation in 2006, and just 6-percent of all projected voters. While those numbers had certainly grown by this year’s election, Latino voters are still a very small slice of the voter pie.

But Rove’s logic held that culturally conservative Latino voters would break for the GOP in significant margins, providing that Republicans pandered to them on the issue of immigration. That formula had a self-propelling design to it: a policy of open borders and amnesty would dramatically grow the Hispanic voting bloc, which in turn would perpetuate the demand for cyclical concessions on immigration, particularly along the lines of “family reunification” and ever-expanding “guest worker” programs.

A GOP that delivered on those perpetual demands, Rove reasoned, would earn the enduring gratitude of Latinos, who would become the margin of victory in critical Southwest and Rocky Mountain states and thus become the key to sustaining the Republican majority.

In 2003, Rove suggested that the impending 2004 elections would determine if the Republicans were finally witnessing the fundamental ‘realignment’ of the American body politic to their side. When Bush was sworn in for his second term, the GOP had increased its majorities in both the Senate and the House.

No less a pundit than Dick Morris declared the day after the election that the “Hispanic vote elected Bush.”

Despite the debacle unraveling in Iraq, in the early months of 2005 it must have seemed like the only thing between Republicans and securing their hold on federal power for a generation to come was passing an amnesty that would effectively co-opt a reliable Democratic voting bloc by at least preserving Bush’s near-even split of their vote.

In May of 2005, John McCain ushered in the ‘Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act’ with Ted Kennedy, but that bill and successive attempts at amnesty failed when Bush and Rove could not break a stubborn bulwark of Republicans in the House that wanted to enforce existing immigration laws and secure the border. Rove undoubtedly felt secure that Bush, McCain and other national Republican figures were sending the right message to Latinos: We’re trying.

But in reality, Rove’s blueprint for realignment proved to be an unmitigated electoral disaster in the short-term, alienating conservatives without bringing any significant number of independents or center-leaning Democrats into the voting booth in support of the policy. If it remains in their playbook for much longer, Rove’s strategy may lead to nothing less than an extinction level event for the Republicans by mid-century.

There is no question that by nominating McCain, the Republicans ran a poster candidate for Rove’s grand design. The party simply couldn’t produce a candidate more palatable to Latino activists and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on immigration. As the co-author of the sweeping plan for amnesty, McCain played the role of the conciliatory Republican to the hilt during the fall campaign. He refused to discuss the impact of illegal immigration on working Americans during the debates and cheerfully pandered on the sly to ethnocentric groups like the National Council of La Raza. He recruited radical Latino pan-nationalist Juan Hernandez as a member of his campaign staff and silently backed away from the issue of border security at every opportunity.

He quietly defied not only the Republican base on immigration—but working Americans of every political and ethnic stripe.

And what did McCain’s 30 pieces of silver buy the GOP come November? A stunning loss among Latinos, with two out of every three Hispanic voters who went to the polls voting for Barack Obama.

As a result of that drubbing, the narrative now peddled by Latino activists and their business allies holds that the Republicans doomed whatever slim chance they had in November by taking a ‘hard line’ against illegal immigration. This is a national application of the political myth-making that Latino activists successfully lab-tested in California 15 years ago.

Conventional wisdom in media circles throughout California has it that the once rock-ribbed Republican state—which didn’t go for a single Democratic presidential candidate since LBJ won it in 1964 until 1992 when Bill Clinton finally carried it—slid irreversibly into the Democratic column as a result of Gov. Pete Wilson’s support in 1994 for the wildly popular Prop. 187, which would have ended most public benefits for illegal immigrants.

This narrative holds that Wilson’s embrace of Californians’ outrage over their state being swamped with illegal immigrants awoke a sleeping giant in the Latino electorate, one that has turned the Golden State a deep shade of blue as political payback against a mean-spirited and bigoted GOP.

It’s a nice story for the Democrats to kick around watering holes with their favorite reporters, but it’s fiction.

The reality of Prop. 187 is that it passed with more than 60-percent of the vote, including significant support in the black, Latino and Asian communities. When all the ballots were counted, more than 5 million Californians of every racial, ethnic and religious stripe voted to end the ‘pull factors’ of taxpayer subsidies to illegal immigrants. Far from peddling crass demagoguery to stoke racial fears, Wilson smartly tapped into a righteous backlash of voter disgust over a tidal wave of illegal immigration that was corroding their quality of life and a government that was doing nothing about it.

It was hardly surprising that the National Council of La Raza and its band of brothers in the Latino nationalist movement launched a hysterical campaign of invective both before and after the vote, labeling the initiative’s supporters as “racists.” Such toxic smear tactics are their trademark. Yet what is stunning is how this narrative was not only adopted by the Left Coast media, but also slowly wormed its way into the top echelons of the Republican Party.

Instead of offering a full-throated, unequivocal defense of Prop. 187 and the majority of Californian voters who supported it; as the years have passed the Republican leadership lost the courage of its grassroots convictions and watered down its “messaging” on immigration into a muddle of half-hearted pronouncements and empty photo-op gestures about border security.

By the time Rove landed at the White House in 2001 he was undoubtedly scheming to turn that that flaccid acquiescence into a working plan for Republican dominance. Most problematic were the voices amid the GOP’s House caucus that favored enforcing America’s immigration laws. So Rove set an early example of how that would be dealt with: he gleefully told Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo to never darken the doorway of the White House again after the congressman dared to criticize the Bush/Rove open-border policy. McCain’s sidekick Sen. Lindsay Graham later went a step further, vowing to the National Council of La Raza during an emotional appeal that “We’re going to tell the bigots to shut up!”

Repeatedly it was Republican players, following the strategy plotted by Rove, that offered dire warnings that failure to placate Latinos with a mass amnesty was tantamount to leaping into electoral oblivion.

And they pointed to the fate of California’s GOP in the aftermath of Prop. 187 as Exhibit A.

Ironically, it wasn’t Prop. 187 that kneecapped the Republican Party in California, but rather the mass amnesty that was signed into law by President Reagan almost a generation earlier in 1986. That sweeping pardon not only immediately legalized and put on a path to citizenship more than a million illegal immigrants in California, but also triggered a massive wave of illegal immigration from Mexico into the state which by 1994 had reached a critical mass, prompting the voter’s desperate backlash by approving Prop. 187 overwhelmingly.

At the time, then State Senator Art Torres declared Prop. 187 to be the “last gasp of white America in California.” In some respects, that prognostication was not that far off the mark. It may not have been the last gasp of whites in California, but it was the beginning of the Republicans’ death rattle once they faltered in their support of legal and orderly immigration.

Almost anyone living in California at the time could discern a fairly clear chain-reaction during the decade that followed the 1986 amnesty, as the massive influx of illegal immigrants began to sink schools, hospitals and other social services and community resources; middle class Anglo suburbanites that had been critical votes for the GOP in the state saw their quality of life rapidly eroding and many simply left the state. Following the state Attorney General’s failure to defend the initiative, Prop. 187 was litigated-to-death by Latino activists while Gov. Gray Davis, Wilson’s Democratic replacement, sat on his hands. The middle-class exodus out of California grew to 200,000 people annually.

In every California election since then, Latino activists and the Democratic Party have worked in tandem to re-write history and convince not only Hispanic voters but Republican candidates as well that Prop. 187 was catastrophic for the GOP. They carefully ignore several inconvenient facts, perhaps the most glaring of which is Davis was driven from office in a humiliating recall election in which his opposition to Prop. 187 and his brazen pandering to Latinos by signing a bill that gave illegal immigrants driver’s licenses could not save him. Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, who supported Prop. 187 and promised during the recall campaign to repeal the law granting drivers licenses to illegal immigrants , trounced by a nearly 20-point margin Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante, a Latino who opposed Prop. 187, supported driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants and could not name a single social service program that he felt should not be granted to illegal immigrants.

In 2006, Democrat Phil Angelides ramped up desperate attacks on Schwarzenegger’s previous support of Prop. 187 and tried to get traction by accusing the Republicans of trying to suppress the Latino vote through dirty tricks. Schwarzenegger cruised to reelection in a state where more than 20-percent of voters are Latino, once again smashing his Democratic opponent with another deep double-digit margin.

The real lesson that the GOP—and the Democrats, for that matter—should learn from California is that when it stands up for common sense efforts to secure our nation’s borders and protect dwindling social resources for American citizens, then immigration is a winning issue. When it offers an unflinching, principled defense for the sovereignty of the United States and its rule of law, immigration is an indisputable winner.

But when it succumbs to the glittering temptation of a cynical political scheme like the strategy plotted by Rove and pursued by Bush with all the dogged determination that he demonstrated in the disaster of Iraq, then the Republicans alienate far more voters than they could ever seduce and ultimately deliver themselves to utter defeat. When it replaces clear-eyed confidence on the issue with a halting air of uncertainty, when its own leadership begins to parrot the transparently false propaganda of its opponents, then the existential threat it faces comes from within its own ranks as its raison d’être washes away into the quicksand of a compromise that is far more surrender than it is consensus.

Mark Cromer is a Senior Writing Fellow at Californians for Population Stabilization, www.CAPSweb.org.

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