It is to be expected that former President George W. Bush’s statement endorsing the immigration reform bill recently passed by the Senate won’t have much impact on the activists urging House Republicans to trash the legislation. The Tea Party movement that grew up in the years after Bush left office was, to no small degree, a reaction to the way the party seemed to crash and burn in the final years of his presidency. The consensus among many in the grass roots was that Bush and many congressional Republicans lost their way in the last decade, becoming advocates for big government in a way that undermined the GOP’s principles while also demonstrating no aptitude for governing.
The party’s resurgence of 2010 was driven by a new brand of Tea Party Republicanism that rejected the supposed legacy of Bush’s tax-and-spend policies almost as much as it did those of President Obama. But just as polls show that the country is reassessing its negative views of the Bush presidency, so, too, should Republicans who believed that kicking the 43rd president to the curb was essential to ensuring their future.
It is in that context that conservative activists should listen to Bush’s terse advice and remember that their views about immigration policy should be separated from the tendency of many on the right to oppose anything endorsed by Obama. Rather than dismissing Bush as a relic of an era of big government Republicanism, they should remember that for all of his faults and the mistakes made during his administration, the last GOP candidate to win the presidency was someone who had a better grasp of the sentiments of middle America than most of those conservatives currently claiming to represent its interests.
As Bush noted in the interview with ABC News this past weekend, the debate on the right about whether the immigration bill will improve the prospects of the Republicans among Hispanics is beside the point. “Good policy yields good politics, as far as I’m concerned,” Bush said.
Tea Partiers have lambasted the idea of “compassionate conservatism” that Bush ran on in 2000 and 2004 as a failed experiment in which the GOP sought to outdo the Democrats when it came to distributing goodies to the voters. To some extent that critique is right. The expansion of Medicare that provided free prescription drug benefits passed by a GOP Congress and signed by Bush was a fiscal disaster and is rightly cited by conservatives as an example of how the “compassionate conservatives” drove the party into a ditch. But that doesn’t mean that every aspect of Bush’s attempt to reposition the party as one that represented the center as well as the right was incorrect. His spirit of openness—exemplified by his support of immigration reform—was integral to his electoral success and his ability to lead until war weariness and a fiscal collapse (that was brought on by a housing bubble created by Democratic policies as much as those of the GOP) derailed his presidency.
Much of the debate over the immigration bill this summer will focus on its strengths and weaknesses, but the real issue isn’t so much the details as whether Republicans have lost faith in the idea that, as Bush said, “I think it’s very important to fix a broken system, to treat people with respect. And have confidence in our capacity to assimilate people.”
Strip away a lot of the sophistry and misleading statistics that are put forward by some of the bill’s critics and what you see is a basic lack of confidence in that capacity and a lack of faith in the country’s future as its population changes. The nativist tone of many of the arguments used against the bill isn’t just a function of that lamentable tendency on the part of some on the right to deplore and to futilely attempt to halt the rise in the Hispanic population as it is a desire to keep out foreigners who wish to work in the United States. That is, as Peter Wehner noted earlier today, not just wrong but completely contrary to the spirit of Republicanism as articulated by its iconic leaders Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.
The assumption on the part of many on the right is that Bush is ancient history and should be ignored. Though the president’s mother, former First Lady Barbara Bush, was right when she said, “we’ve had enough Bushes” in the White House, Republicans do need to remember that they will never grow their party or win back the White House by allowing isolationism or nativism to dominate their thinking.
As one conservative critic wrote at National Review Online today, immigration has been an issue since 1789, but while he was right about that what he failed to point out is that those who hitch their wagon to the Know Nothing strain of our political tradition always lose in the end.