Published on TheHill.com on March 26, 2013
It is not enough for the Republican Party to acquiesce in a bipartisan bill for immigration reform — the scars its image bears in the Latino community run too deep for that. Republicans need to get out in front on the issue. Immigration reform needs to be a Republican bill. Only then can we hope to heal the scars left from the party’s role in scuttling reform in 2005 and 2006.
Latinos, remember, were on the verge of voting Republican after 2004, when former President George W. Bush almost carried them against John Kerry in the presidential race. But then the courtship blew up in the GOP’s face when its base killed immigration reform. That failure to pass reform led directly to the loss of the Senate in 2006 and the election of President Obama in 2008 — and then to his reelection in 2012. It qualifies as one of the major blunders in Republican history. Now is the time to correct it before our party becomes exiled to being a footnote in history.
But how? Here, a strange but important political dynamic takes shape. The only interesting story in Washington as the immigration reform bill goes through Congress will be whether the House GOP leadership — Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) — will be able to whip his troops into line to pass the bill. Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and the Democrats are a sideshow here. The question hanging over the debate is whether a grassroots, talk-radio-led rebellion will beat immigration reform as it did Bush’s attempts to pass the bill in 2006.
But rank-and-file Republican voters are in a very different place now than they were then. John McLaughlin’s survey of 500 likely Republican voters taken in February 2013 shows deep and broad support for immigration reform. He found that 66 percent backed it conceptually, and that support swelled to 75 percent when Republicans heard the specifics of the bill from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). So, when the sides are drawn for the intra-party debate upon which the bill’s fate hinges, we can count on the base to back the bill, not to scuttle it.
Here, the very difficulty of the job of winning Republican votes will serve to focus attention on the changing attitudes of Republicans toward the issue. Now will be the chance for Republican leaders, in Congress and outside, to stand up and persuade their partisans that it is time to pass the bill. And, in the process, they will win a new opportunity to get the Latinos they lost the last time.
It matters less how long the wait is for citizenship or what extra border security is required in the bill; the key to its success in healing the breach between Latinos and Republicans is that it forthrightly allow those who came here illegally to stay and to work if they have no criminal record.
Remember what happened in 1964. Republican Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (Ill.) commanded center stage as he rounded up the GOP votes for cloture on the Civil Rights Act. Eventually, he got all but six Republican senators to vote to end the filibuster. But then, Barry Goldwater — one of the six — got the Republican presidential nomination, Lyndon B. Johnson made the bill the issue of the campaign, and blacks have voted Democratic ever since.
Mindful of that history, we need Boehner and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus to stand up loudly and strongly for immigration reform and to become the poster boys for the change in the Republican Party. They need to proclaim that the GOP welcomes immigrants, thanks those who have come here to help build our economy and wants them to reinvigorate our capitalist, free enterprise, individual entrepreneurialism. They need to stress that Democratic policies of debt and handouts threaten to recreate the situations in their former nations that caused them to flee to the land of opportunity — America.
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