Sunday, June 03, 2007

Testing the Party Base: Bush Pushes Immigration

This post is a follow up to my entry yesterday, "President Bush and the Conservative Crackup." It turns out that the New York Times has a related article in this morning's edition, "Bush's Push on Immigration Tests His Base." Here's the introduction:

President Bush’s advocacy of an immigration overhaul and his attacks on critics of the plan are provoking an unusually intense backlash from conservatives who form the bulwark of his remaining support, splintering his base and laying bare divisions within a party whose unity has been the envy of Democrats.

It has pitted some of Mr. Bush’s most stalwart Congressional and grass-roots backers against him, inciting a vitriol that has at times exceeded anything seen yet between Mr. Bush and his supporters, who have generally stood with him through the toughest patches of his presidency. Those supporters now view him as pursuing amnesty for foreign lawbreakers when he should be focusing on border security.

Postings on conservative Web sites this week have gone so far as to call for Mr. Bush’s impeachment, and usually friendly radio hosts, commentators and Congressional allies are warning that he stands to lose supporters — a potentially damaging development, they say, when he needs all the backing he can get on other vital matters like the war in Iraq.

“I think President Bush hurts himself every time he says it is not amnesty,” said Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, referring to the bill’s legalization process for immigrants. “We are not all that stupid.”

This week, after Mr. Bush’s suggestion that those opposing the Congressional plan “don’t want to do what’s right for America” inflamed conservative passions, Rush Limbaugh told listeners, “I just wish he hadn’t done it because he’s not going to lose me on Iraq, and he’s not going to lose me on national security.” He added, “But he might lose some of you.”

Such sentiments have reverberated through talk radio, conservative publications like National Review and Fox News. They have also appeared on Web sites including and, where postings reflect a feeling that Mr. Bush is smiting his own coalition in pursuit of a badly needed domestic accomplishment, and working in league with the likes of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a co-author of the legislation.

White House officials said it had led them to engage the blogosphere in a concerted way for the first time, posting defenses on liberal and conservative sites.

The tensions, which have rippled through the Republican presidential field, are intensifying just as the Senate is preparing to renew debate on the measure next week. Opponents are seeking significant changes — or outright defeat of the legislation — and raising the specter of a filibuster. The battle has pitted the White House against a group that includes even Mr. Bush’s reliable supporters from his home state of Texas, Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, both Republicans.

White House officials said it was a debate they welcomed in pursuit of a long-sought presidential goal, but in interviews this week, they expressed frustration at what they described as ill-informed criticism that the bill provided amnesty for illegal immigrants when it in fact traded legal status for fines and fees — more than $6,000 for green card holders, officials said. They also noted that the most recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed 66 percent of Republicans supported its legalization provisions.
Be sure to read the whole thing. I'm a little surprised how nasty this intraparty fight is getting, although I'm glad to hear that there's a firm national constituency holding the conservative ground on immigration.

Further down in the article, there's some interesting discussion about the feud between the editors of the National Review and the Wall Street Journal, with National Review writers taking a critical stance against the Wall Street Journal's essentially open borders positions. (I have criticized the Wall Street Journal on immigration, at least a couple of times. See
here and here.) The National Review 's debate challenge to the Wall Street Journal is here, and another National Review editorial opposing the Bush-Kennedy bill is here. By the way, be sure to check out this post from Bizzy Blog, which also cites the Peggy Noonan article I critiqued yesterday. But more interestingly, the Bizzy entry also has a copy of a 1984 Wall Street Journal editorial calling unequivically for an open borders policy.

I've written on immigration almost as frequently as I have on Iraq. I'm no nativist on the issue. But I do think the crisis of illegal immigration just makes hollow our claim to be a nation of laws. Further, I take seriously the cultural challenges to American national identity, which I blogged about the other day ("
Hispanic Immigration and the Immigration Debate"), citing Samuel Huntington and others making the conservative case against the Mexifornication of the nation.

One last point, I don't really think the Senate bill's legalization provision constitutes blanket amnesty. There are some tough provisions and high costs for green card holders to get legal, and I doubt the alternative of deporting 12 million aliens is practical. I also support the bill's movement away from the stress on family reunification in current policy toward more attention to immigrants' job skills (and
I agree with the Wall Street Journal on this point).

For more on the strengths of the Senate's immigration proposal, see
this Foreign Policy essay from Phillipe Legrain. He's pragmatic, and notes that for all the bill's flaws, it will be easier to amend the problematic aspects of the legislation later, rather than lose the current opportunity for comprehensive reform.

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