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The Republican Crossroads on Immigration

By John McIntyre

This is a critical juncture for the GOP on illegal immigration and how to fashion a comprehensive solution to the broader immigration debate. Republicans are in a position to turn the illegal immigration issue into a significant asset heading into the 2006 elections, but the difficulty will be finessing the issue in a way that does not poison GOP relations with the growing Hispanic community for 2008 and beyond.

It is clear that most in the Washington establishment are living in a bubble when it comes to where the average American is on illegal immigration. This past weekend two beltway icons, David Broder on Meet the Press and Bill Kristol on FOX News Sunday, encapsulated the conventional wisdom by saying President Bush would benefit from passing a comprehensive reform bill. They are wrong - especially if we are talking about any compromise that looks remotely like the Senate bill that passed with 85% Democratic support over the objections of nearly 2/3rd of Senate Republicans. Kristol, Broder and the majority of establishment intelligentsia don't appreciate the political dynamics at play in the broad middle of the country.

There is a quiet rage building among average middle class folks on the illegal immigration issue, and if the Republican leadership doesn't take control of the problem very soon they will allow the more extremist wings of the anti-immigration debate to become the face of the Republican party on immigration. That would be a disaster for GOP hopes to grow their new found majority in the years to come.

The surprise that is building politically is how strongly illegal immigration will manifest itself in the fall elections. Contrary to the early conventional wisdom that the huge immigration rallies would galvanize Congress to pass some kind of "comprehensive reform" along the lines of the Senate bill, the reality is that House Republicans with their enforcement-first approach are poised to reap substantial benefits by killing the Senate's reprise of Simpson-Mazzoli.

Slate's Mickey Kaus deserves enormous credit for being out in front on the political analysis of the immigration issue, and he has been suggesting for some time that Bush's position is giving the GOP national cover with the Hispanic community while the House plays bad cop to the core of the Republican base which is demanding something be done to stop the flow of illegal immigrants. That appears to be exactly how this playing out, though I think at some point the schism between Bush and Congressional Republicans will become more and more difficult for the GOP to finesse and creates other problems heading into 2006.

Tactically, however, Congressional Republicans should change focus in how they attack the Senate bill, away from the "pathway to citizenship" or "amnesty" issue and instead concentrate on the commitment to halt illegal immigration. This is not a small point, but rather a critically important distinction in the public relations battle.

From the Republican standpoint, the core of the argument over the next few weeks (and in this fall's election) needs to be the seriousness of stopping the illegal flow over the border, not about a pathway to citizenship. If Republicans make a pathway to citizenship the primary issue, they are making a serious mistake because this comes across to the Hispanic community as mean-spirited and anti-immigrant.

Republicans need to craft a compromise that puts in place a program to shut down the illegal flow, which upon the proven success of dramatically halting illegal immigration will trigger a process that provides a pathway to citizenship for the millions of illegals who have been here for years. This is the type of broad-based compromise that the majority of the American people can support and it will put the onus on the Democrats to put up or shut up about whether they are serious about halting illegal immigration.

Leadership has to be provided by congressional Republicans because President Bush simply does not have credibility on the border enforcement issue.

Two recent comments by the new White House press secretary, Tony Snow, illuminate this administration's attitude toward illegal immigration. The first was the well-publicized comparison of illegal immigration to a traffic ticket which was an apt, if unwitting, display of the federal government's attitude toward illegal immigration over the last twenty years.

The second was Snow's comment that "border enforcement starts the first full week of June." Such a comment, if made by a Democratic administration, would be roundly ridiculed by people wondering why it would take 5 years and 5 months into a presidency to start border enforcement. President Bush had a chance to address this credibility problem in his prime-time immigration speech two weeks ago but chose to take a pass, so if there is going to be any leadership on the issue it is going to have to come from Congress.

Republicans who are steadfast against "a pathway to citizenship" need to be realistic and open to compromise. If they can make the debate over seriousness on enforcing border security and prosecuting businesses that break the law, they can win the public relations battle, and win it in a way that does not destroy the GOP with the Hispanic community, a la Prop 187 and the 1994 experience in California.

The compromise I'm suggesting is a bill that would come out of conference and lose half to 80% of Democratic support as well as a handful of very hardcore right-wingers (maybe 20-30 in the House). This is the kind of comprehensive bill that would indeed be a huge victory for Republicans and the President. It would put political pressure on Senate Democrats forcing them to either filibuster the final bill or allow Bush and the GOP Congress a huge victory.

Without the President running point, however, I don't see enough leadership on the Republican side - particularly in the Senate - to hold out much hope that such a final bill is very likely. Given that reality, the best course for Republicans is to have the House kill the entire process, with the message that a 2006 redo of the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli bill is simply unacceptable.

Republicans should understand that if there is a signing ceremony with President Bush, John McCain and Ted Kennedy on a compromise immigration bill that the Washington Post and New York Times praise, the GOP can kiss control of Congress good-bye. The illegal immigration issue is poised to be a huge factor in this fall's elections, and if Republicans play it right over the next few weeks they could lay the groundwork for turning around their prospects this November. And if they frame the issue around border security and halting illegality and not a pathway to citizenship, they can do so without hurting their long-term electoral prospects that demand a GOP that is competitive within the Hispanic community.

John McIntyre is the President and co-founder of RealClearPolitics. Email: john@realclearpolitics.com

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