President Bush's nationally televised address on immigration Monday night was intended as a grand gesture to revive his collapsing presidency, but instead he has plunged the Republican Party into a political centrifuge that is breaking it down into its raw elements, which are colliding into each other, triggering explosions of unexpected and ever greater magnitude.
The nativist Republican base is at the throat of the business community. The Republican House of Representatives, in the grip of the far right, is at war with the Republican Senate. The evangelical religious right is paralyzed while the Roman Catholic Church has emerged as a mobilizing force behind the mass demonstrations of millions of Hispanic immigrants. Every effort Bush makes to hold a nonexistent Republican center is generating an opposing effect within his party.
Bush's victory in 2004 depended upon the calibrated management of highly volatile constituencies. The religious right was shepherded by referendums against gay marriage in 16 swing states. The Catholic hierarchy was carefully split so that conservatives using the abortion issue were raised to the pulpit while progressive-minded bishops concerned with a broader agenda were isolated. The fevered imaginations of nativists were captivated by hosts of enemies who appeared in the whirlwind of Sept. 11.
Bush's political handlers were determined to suppress immigration as an issue. Coming from Texas and hardly uninformed about the future of American demographics, they understood the immense significance of the Hispanic vote. Though Hispanic voter participation falls far below eligibility -- at 14 percent of eligible voters in 2004, they made up only 6 percent of voters -- the number voting among a group that will soon constitute about 20 percent of the population is increasing in every election cycle. Bush's ability to capture 5 percent more of the Catholic vote and 10 percent more of the Hispanic vote in 2004 than he did in 2000 on the basis of social issues like gay marriage was one of the most decisive factors giving him a second term.
But as his presidency has weakened, Bush has lost his grip on his party. As Bush's neoconservative foreign policy has been discredited, a virulent form of isolationist nationalism, always lurking beneath the surface, has filled the vacuum. Bush successfully exploited fear arising from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and conflated them with Iraq. But the public has turned against the Iraq war. Fear of the Other is being displaced onto the traditional nativist target: immigrants. It need not be said that they are Catholic and dark-skinned. From the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s to the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, American politics has been racked by cycles of nativism, appearing in periods of conservative reaction.
The House has approved a bill that would make it a felony to hire or even help undocumented workers. On the right, this is considered a condition for the eventual deportation of the more than 11 million such workers, and anything short of this solution is branded a treasonous "amnesty."
Bush's modest proposal for allowing undocumented workers to stay in the country and eventually be granted citizenship has incited nothing but anger and contempt on the right. His rhetorical sops -- his risible opposition to the singing of the national anthem in Spanish, for example -- have only galvanized and legitimized the nativists. And his planned dispatch of 6,000 National Guard troops to the 2,000-mile border with Mexico has inspired widespread ridicule -- a "Band-Aid," derided California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has identified the church, body and soul, as the moral guardian of immigrants and a proponent of offering them social services and citizenship. The future of the church in the Western Hemisphere, in the pews and the priesthood, pressed by evangelical missionaries, rests with the growth of the Hispanic population. For the church, defense of the human rights of immigrants is a salient moral cause and a matter of survival. It is also the oldest heritage and bulwark of the American church.
Last month, when a prominent organization of the religious right, the Family Research Council, attempted to summon support for the House bill, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference warned that it would break away, and the stunned leaders of the religious right were stymied.
The Republican Party as a whole is recapitulating the self-destruction of the California Republican Party. In 1994, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson advocated Proposition 187, which threatened to deny social services, healthcare and education to undocumented workers, and it aroused the Hispanic sleeping giant. From that moment, in national elections, California became one of the safest Democratic states, and only an anomaly like Schwarzenegger, an immigrant, could emerge as a viable statewide candidate. Ronald Reagan's party is a thing of the past.
The delicate coalition Bush put together in 2004 has shattered. But in losing control of the debate on immigration, which reflects his loss of control of the political debate in general, he has lost something more -- the capacity to speak for the American idea. In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt confidently spoke before the convention of the nativist Daughters of the American Revolution. "Remember, remember always," he said, "that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists."
This story has been corrected since it was first published.