Former Bush Speechwriter: The GOP Needs Shock Therapy on Immigration

Michael Gerson argues that "an element of the party has set out to positively alienate the Hispanic community."
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A chief speechwriter for George W. Bush, Michael Gerson, offered his most blunt remarks during a "Future of the Republican Party" panel on the subject of immigration. The problem isn't that the GOP has done insufficient outreach to the Hispanic community, he wrote -- it's that "an element of the party has set out to positively alienate the Hispanic community." He cited Proposition 187, a California ballot initiative backed by Republican Governor Pete Wilson that sought to deny public services to illegal immigrants; the controversial immigration enforcement law passed by Arizona voters; the defeat of President Bush's efforts at immigration reform; and Mitt Romney's talk of "self-deportation."

The problem requires "shock therapy," he said -- he spoke of a need to signal, "we understand that this has been on the wrong track," and argued that passing immigration reform is a vital symbolic act.

Several thoughts:

  • Proposition 187, however mistaken, wasn't a deliberate attempt by politicians to antagonize Hispanics. But it certainly had that effect. Obliviousness to the effect it would have was actually a much bigger problem than any intention of angering people.
  • It's true that there's a nativist element in the Republican Party that talks about illegal immigrants as if they are sub-human. There are, as well, other Republicans more restrained in their rhetoric, but who give off the impression that they aren't huge fans of Hispanic immigrants. This definitely alienates Hispanic voters, but it is unclear to me that the passage of immigration reform would win over these people -- whether a reform bill passes or not, that element will still exist in the Republican coalition. So long as the questionable rhetoric continues, so will the mistrust. Would a successful immigration reform bill make the issue go away? If so, perhaps it would be the better political move for Republicans. Would it cause a backlash and make immigration more of an issue in the next GOP primary? That would arguably be worse politically for Republicans than doing nothing at all.
  • The strongest case to be made for immigration reform isn't political -- it's that leaving so many millions living illegally is needlessly callous and destructive to our society in many ways.
  • Hispanic voters seem willing to give Republican politicians like George W. Bush, who seem to have genuine affection for the Hispanic community, the opportunity to win their votes, despite what they may think of the GOP generally, or the offensive rhetoric of some of its members.

A video clip I always come back to on this subject is George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan talking to one another about illegal immigration back when they were running against one another:

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.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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