Commentary Magazine


Today’s Real Reaganites on Immigration

Earlier this month I posted a piece on why I thought long-time conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly was wrong to write off the Hispanic vote. Ms. Schlafly is back at it, this time saying, “They don’t have any Republican inclinations at all. They’re running an illegitimacy rate that’s just about the same as the blacks are.” She went on to say this: 

They come from a country where they have no experience with limited government. And the types of rights we have in the Bill of Rights, they don’t understand that at all, you can’t even talk to them about what the Republican principle is.

Now take two and a half minutes to watch this clip from a 1980 debate between Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush on illegal immigration, Mexico, and the policies they endorse. What you’ll see is that the approach and attitude of Bush and Reagan is profoundly different from what we’re hearing from many conservatives today on immigration. Set aside for a moment the differences in policy, which are significant. What I’m speaking to is a cast of mind, a temperament, a certain spirit of generosity that both Bush and Reagan (blessedly) had–and which has, for many on the right, virtually vanished. If these individuals don’t fully subscribe to the views of Schlafly and Patrick J. Buchanan, they are certainly sympathetic to them. If a Republican today used language remotely similar to what Bush and Reagan did, they would be hooted off many a conservative stage. What makes this even odder is that many of the people who employ the most off-putting rhetoric on immigration either worked in the Reagan administration or consider themselves Reaganites. But on this subject at least, they are more nearly the antithesis of Reagan.

Now I understand that circumstances have changed, and conservatives are perfectly within their right to say that their attitude toward illegal and legal immigrants today is right and Reagan and Bush’s were wrong. But those conservatives who believe that Reagan, if he were alive today, would be standing with them are massively distorting the Reagan record–both his words and his deeds. 

The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, whose post alerted me to the Bush-Reagan debate, added this: 

As America has become much more sensitive about the way it speaks about racially charged subjects, the language used by Republican standard bearers on illegal immigration has grown much less sensitive — and that’s happened as the clout of Hispanic voters has risen significantly. That’s a huge problem for Republicans.

It is indeed. And today the real Reaganites on immigration are people like Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, and Jeb Bush. The fact that they are targeted for such harsh criticism these days tells you a great deal about how much the GOP has moved on this issue; and how long the road back might be.