Is Rush Limbaugh right?

Could immigration really be the issue that finally cracks the Republican base? It's already making the party's '08 contenders act funny.

Published May 23, 2007 11:33AM (EDT)

On his radio talk show last Friday, dittohead in chief Rush Limbaugh was working himself into quite a lather. The subject? Immigration reform, specifically the controversial immigration bill now before the Senate -- or, as Limbaugh dubbed it, the Comprehensive Destroy the Republican Party Act. Though Limbaugh pummeled his usual targets on the left, complaining that the current immigration reform proposal was yet another Ted Kennedy-led scheme to destroy America, Limbaugh was also unsparing toward national Republicans:

At the end of the day here, what we're talking about is the marginalization, if not the destruction, of the Republican Party. Look, it's time to be blunt here. I said I'm going to stop carrying the water last November, and I'm not carrying the water. The current crop of Republican leaders has not only lost the Congress, the current crop of Republican leaders is on the way to destroying the base by signing on to this kind of legislation.

This is not the first time I've heard this sentiment. Before the 2006 midterms, a leader of a prominent national conservative organization told me flatly that conservatives were willing to choke down their disgust with Bush till the votes were counted, but afterward, win or lose, they would be silent no more. Sure enough, post-election, Limbaugh and others gave vent to some of their more unkind feelings about the president and his party. And now, thanks to immigration reform, the volume of complaints has risen to a roar. As soon as the details of the painstakingly negotiated bipartisan proposal began to trickle out last week, talk radio and the right half of the blogosphere went ballistic, saying the bill meant de facto amnesty for illegal aliens. Furious members of the Republican rank and file began talking about last straws and using "impeachment" and "Bush" in the same sentence.

For the past three decades, Republicans have carefully sidestepped the kinds of issues that could divide a party's followers from its Beltway elites -- and expertly deployed the same wedge issues against the Democrats. Now the party's 2008 front-runners are in trouble, one of Karl Rove's long-term strategic goals is in doubt, and the foot soldiers are close to open revolt, all thanks to one uniquely radioactive wedge issue. Could Limbaugh's warning about a great unraveling be true?

"The Republican strategy on immigration has been one of the great failures of modern politics," says Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, which has organized a systematic outreach campaign to Hispanic voters. "What's going on in the Republican Party is a debate between the strategists who want to win and a part of their base that is extremely xenophobic."

Immigration is especially perilous for the GOP because it is what might be called a "double-edged" wedge issue. It not only pits the party's base against a large and quickly growing pool of potential new Republicans -- 41 million Hispanics -- but also pits two key parts of the existing base against each other. The Wall Street wing of the GOP, which finances the party, wants to keep open the spigot of pliant and cheap Spanish-speaking labor. It finds itself opposed by much of the Main Street wing, which provides millions of crucial primary and general election votes and would like to build a fence along the Mexican border as high as Lou Dobbs' ratings or the pitch of Pat Buchanan's voice. And it's simply impossible for any political party to win if it has to choose between money and votes.

Why have Republicans found themselves on the point of this wedge? Because in the two decades since the last major immigration measure, the makeup of the national Republican Party and the demography of the country have both changed dramatically. In 1986, radio talkers like Limbaugh could not harness the power of millions of devoted daily listeners to bring national Republican political figures to heel, and the Hispanic vote share was negligible. Twenty years later, Limbaugh is the most popular talk radio host in America, and there are millions of Spanish-speaking immigrants living alongside Rush's listeners in the kinds of red states where Spanish was rarely heard before. At the same time, the Latino vote has grown to 10 million. The GOP is now forced to choose between its reliable base of close-the-border, English-only cultural whites and the rapidly growing bloc of swing-voting Hispanics.

The demographic winds explain why Karl Rove has been obsessed with corralling the Hispanic vote since he was the little-known sidekick of a would-be Texas governor. He made George Bush a uniquely successful candidate among Latino voters in both state and federal elections by embracing Hispanic culture and avoiding any whiff of anti-immigrant rhetoric. After Bush won a startling 40 percent of the Hispanic votes in 2004, double the GOP total from a decade earlier, the Democrats rightly panicked. The conventional wisdom among pollsters like Republican Matt Dowd -- a former Democrat who admits he was attracted to Bush precisely because of the then-Texas governor's views about Hispanic assimilation -- was that if Republicans could reach 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, they would be unbeatable, but if they sank below 30 percent, they would be in a world of electoral trouble. Sure enough, after many 2006 Republican congressional candidates ran nasty, anti-immigrant ads -- some juxtaposing the faces of Hispanic immigrants with Islamic terrorists -- the GOP share of the Hispanic vote collapsed to 29 percent in the midterm cycle. "The Republicans have to choose if they want to be a 21st-century party, and right now they are making decisions like they're a 20th-century party," says the New Democrat Network's Rosenberg. His organization took many of those attack ads and rebroadcast them on Univision to remind Hispanics which of the two parties had their best interests in mind.

There is a long history of GOP operatives eying Hispanics as potential voters, and that was true before the Hispanic population exploded and before the rise of Rove. Conservative complaints about immigration reform are partly an attempt to rescue, if not recuse, their movement from the failures of the Bush administration by claiming the president isn't actually a conservative -- or at least not a Reagan-styled conservative. But in a brilliant essay last fall, the New Republic's Peter Beinart demolished the more-liberal-than-Reagan fiction by comparing the two presidents on everything from their use of military force to their judicial appointments -- and immigration. Noting that "Bush has been widely scorned for supposedly backing amnesty for illegal immigrants," Beinart asks, "Where on earth could he have gotten that idea? From Reagan, of course, who, in 1986, signed a bill granting amnesty to illegal immigrants who had lived in the United States continuously since 1982." Not that conservatives will let history's stubbornness -- to paraphrase Reagan -- get in the way of making immigration Exhibit A in their indictment of Bush.

Ken Mehlman, immediate past chairman of the Republican National Committee, rejects the notion that the 1986 reform is a proper analog to the current proposal. He says it differs significantly from what happened under Reagan and constitutes "progress from a conservative perspective" because it conforms immigration "with the laws of supply and demand," tracks who is in the country, secures the border, and penalizes illegal behavior. "I think it's legitimate that a lot of conservatives are worried about the 1986 precedent," Mehlman, now a partner at Akin Gump law firm in Washington, said Tuesday in a phone interview. "But this bill avoids two of the 1986 pitfalls: First, back then there was no meaningful increase in legal immigration; and second, anyone who was here illegally we simply waved the wand and they automatically became citizens. This bill does neither."

As for the none-too-subtle complaints by dittoheads about the perils that immigrants pose to American culture and moral standards, Mehlman has a response for that, too. "What I would say in response to that is that this law requires people to learn English, learn about American history, and thus encourages assimilation. American culture is not based on national origin or race. It's e pluribus unum. When we celebrate St. Patrick's Day, do we view it as a foreign holiday? Do we eat a hot dog at a baseball game and think of it as a non-kosher food? No, we don't."

Immigration reform is clearly just part of the Hispanic outreach that Mehlman and the rest of the party's elite see as crucial to the party's survival. When Mehlman stepped down as national GOP chair after the 2006 electoral rout, the party had to make a choice. Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, an African-American, expressed interest in the job. But after witnessing Al Gore receive an even higher share of the African-American vote than Bill "first black president" Clinton, followed by Hurricane Katrina's final drowning of Republican outreach efforts to the black community, at this point GOP efforts to make inroads with black voters makes about as much sense as the Democrats targeting gun-toting yacht owners who preset the radio in their Lexus to James Dobson's radio program.

Hispanic votes are another matter entirely. The Republicans believe they can arrest the erosion of the 2006 election, and they know they must. Mehlman's job eventually went to Cuban-born Mel Martinez, the senator from Florida. Although paid staff do most of the day-to-day work of running a national party, it's increasingly unusual in the modern era to pick an incumbent elected official like a sitting U.S. senator to pull double-duty as national chair. That the White House wanted Martinez is thus revealing and, with respect to the party's base, a risky move. On May 18, Martinez gave a 5,000-word speech in Columbia, S.C., to assembled Republican state party chairs, of which more than 40 percent was dedicated to immigration. "I'm an immigrant to America," he proudly declared. "I understand what the American dream is about. I have an understanding of what it means to become an American, to stand there one day and raise your right hand and abhor and abjure, which is what the oath says, any allegiance to any other foreign land and become an American. I respect what that means."

That message is not selling well with Limbaugh and his minions. And the corporate wing's squishiness on immigration is already creating enormous problems for the GOP in the next election. Among the party's 2008 presidential front-runners, John McCain has borne the brunt of the backlash, since he is the hated reform bill's chief GOP cheerleader in the Senate and was the coauthor of its 2005 forerunner. On the conservative blog Red State, Hunter Baker wondered if McCain's immigration stance has effectively neutralized any advantage he might otherwise have been able to establish over Giuliani and Romney on abortion and other social issues. Perhaps showing the stress, during a contentious mark-up meeting on the reform bill, McCain said "fuck you" to fellow Republican Sen. John Cornyn and called Cornyn's objections to the legislation "chickenshit." On a conference call with a group of conservative bloggers, McCain then accused rival Mitt Romney of flip-flopping on immigration: "Maybe I should wait a couple weeks and see if [Romney's position] changes. Maybe he can get out his small varmint gun and drive those Guatemalans off his yard."

Rudy Giuliani is also feeling the heat. He was the mayor of a city of immigrants, where he championed many see-no-evil policies unpopular with the dittoheads, and has endorsed the immigration bill. One commenter at Free Republic Photoshopped the former New York mayor's face atop the cartoon image of a sombrero-wearing bandito, along with a caption reading, "Borders? Borders? We don' need no steenking borders!"

Only marginal candidates like Duncan Hunter, Ron Paul, and Tom Tancredo, who has made it his signature issue, had sided explicitly with the populist base prior to the recent unpleasantness. Now Giuliani is dancing away from his own overtly pro-immigrant past, and the ever-elastic Romney has positioned himself as McCain's worst enemy on immigration. Sam Brownback, who cosponsored John McCain's original reform bill, decided in April to renounce Satan and recast himself as a nativist.

No matter what the 2008 candidates say or do, however, and regardless of how they fare in the primaries or the general election, the party's elite seems to know what it wants for the long term. The nation's Hispanic population continues to grow at more than 3 percent per year. The party's power players have decided that it is better to act now rather than later, even if Main Street rebels, because later the consequences can only be more dire. Their actions, including their support for the immigration reform bill, will either pull the GOP back from the brink, or push the party over it.

By Thomas F. Schaller

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Immigration John Mccain R-ariz. Republican Party