Ironically, Bush’s approach on immigration is a glimpse into what could have been—centrist politics with broad appeal. But it’s too late for that.
President Bush’s call for a “rational middle ground” on immigration injects a welcome note of sanity into the debate. But that’s not what Bush’s conservative base is looking for. They want red meat, and they won’t be placated by mostly symbolic moves like Bush’s proposal to dispatch the National Guard to the Mexican border and Senate votes to build a partial fence and limit the number of guest workers.
After five and a half years of governing from the irrational exuberant right, Bush’s ability to lead the country on a middle path has been lost. He may have stumbled onto the right message, but he’s the wrong messenger. It’s like his call to break our addiction to oil, which was a line in his State of the Union Message. From a former oilman who as president championed tax breaks for more drilling, it was a brazen left-hand turn, and it went mostly unheeded.
Now we’re in crisis mode with gas prices squeezing Middle America and right-wing commentator Pat Buchanan decrying the “invasion” by illegal immigrants and scaring voters about what he believes is the Mexican government’s secret plan to regain territory it lost in the Mexican-American war in 1848 by repopulating California and the Southwest with Mexican immigrants who will eventually take power through the ballot box. Buchanan, who talks about Bush more in sorrow than in anger, says that the president is trying to re-create the Texas of his youth when Hispanic migration had not yet overwhelmed American border communities. As for Buchanan, he appears to yearn for the homogenous Irish-Catholic neighborhood of his growing-up in a segregated Washington, D.C., in the ’40s and ’50s.
To Buchanan’s way of thinking, the richness of America’s diversity and the growing political clout of Hispanics is a cause for alarm, not for celebration. And it’s not just illegal immigration that worries him; he would like to shut the door to the world and curb legal immigration, as well. If Buchanan were 10 years younger, he’d be running for president. He’s doing the next best thing, rallying the Buchanan Brigades of campaigns past to ramp up the rhetoric and inflame the conservative base to burn the House down, if need be. Speaking on the Don Imus radio show, Buchanan predicted that if the House of Representatives goes along with a Senate-inspired “earned citizenship” proposal for illegal immigrants, the November election would be “like Jonestown—they’ll all be gone.” (Jonestown, Guyana, is where hundreds of followers of the cult leader Jim Jones committed mass suicide in 1978 by drinking a poisoned grape drink.)
Bush is flailing around trying to find the wedge issue that will win back his base, which makes him vulnerable to Buchanan’s nativist ranting. The irony is that Bush’s approach on immigration is a glimpse into what could have been, centrist politics with broad appeal, but it’s too late for that. He spent his entire presidency courting his conservative base, and they won’t put up with this betrayal. “This is the most deeply divisive issue in the party since his father raised taxes,” says Marshall Wittmann, who advised John McCain before joining the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Over at Third Way, another centrist group, there’s an office pool on how low Bush can go in the polls (entries range from 27 percent down to 21 percent). Conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh told his listeners, "I can't think of any single issue, in the 18 years I have been on the air, which has Republicans more up in arms than this one."
Bush is down in the polls because of his policies, not because he’s hit a patch of bad luck. These are self-inflicted wounds. Republicans held out as long as they could, but they’ve had enough, too, of a war that’s taking lives and draining resources and government spending that’s out of control. Just two months after Congress increased the debt ceiling, another hike is needed—the fifth since Bush took office—bringing the amount owed to almost $10 trillion dollars. Bush has built up more foreign-held debt in five years than all previous presidents together accumulated over 224 years. The rebellion over immigration has become the touchstone for conservative anger at Bush over a range of disappointments. “This is where they’re venting,” says Wittmann.
The likely outcome in Congress is that any bill the Senate passes that tilts toward moderation will almost certainly die when it cannot be reconciled with a House bill that says illegal immigrants are felons. The Republicans will then go into the November elections having failed to act on an issue consuming the country at a time when they control the White House and the Congress, a dereliction of duty in the minds of many if not most voters. Neo-Buchananism is on the ascendancy in the Republican Party, and the nativist sentiments unleashed in the immigration debate will end for good Karl Rove’s dream of building a permanent GOP majority, along with Bush’s failed promise to bring the country together.