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The Tancredo Republicans

Wall Street Journal Editorial

Most Congressional majorities campaign for re-election by touting their legislative achievements. Not this year. House Republicans have decided that the key to saving their majority is not to solve the immigration problem they've spent the last year building into a "crisis." Give them credit for novelty, if not for wisdom.

This is the only way to read House Speaker Denny Hastert's decision this week to delay a House-Senate conference on immigration reform, and instead to stage a summer anti-immigration road show. Republicans plan to use the events to further raise the false alarm of "amnesty," which means further attacking their own President's immigration policy. We realize this year's immigration debate long ago left the rational world and is now driven entirely by political fear. But even as political strategy, this is the equivalent of snake-handling; it will be diverting to watch, unless the snake bites back.

Republicans came to this strategic epiphany after concluding that Representative Brian Bilbray won his special election victory in California this month by demagoguing immigration. But all that election really proved is that a GOP Beltway lobbyist could keep a seat in a 60% Republican district so long as he outspent an opponent who committed the final-week gaffe of encouraging immigrants to vote illegally. Replicate that trifecta around the country this November, and Republicans wouldn't need to campaign.

Looking at House Republicans who are vulnerable this year, we can't find a single one who will lose because of support for President Bush's comprehensive immigration reform. That isn't Heather Wilson's problem in New Mexico; she always has a tough race and favors both border security and a guest worker program. Chris Shays also won't save his seat by rallying the bluebloods in Greenwich, Connecticut, against their Mexican maids and construction workers. On the other hand, J.D. Hayworth could lose his seat in Arizona despite taking his anti-immigration riff to any radio or TV show that will have him.

What might well cost all of them their seats is the growing perception that this Congress hasn't achieved much of anything. If Republicans want a precedent, they might recall what happened to Democrats who failed to pass a crime bill in the summer of 1994. Already in trouble on taxes at the time, Democrats looked feckless on crime and health care and went down to crashing defeat. Immigration could do the same for Republicans, who have been flogging the issue for months as a grave national problem. Doing nothing about it now risks alienating even those conservatives who merely want more border police.

House Republicans insist they can't vote for any bill that can be called an "amnesty" for illegals, and that that's what the Senate and Mr. Bush want. But this is a box canyon of their own making. No serious person believes that the 11 million or so illegals already in America will be deported. Nor will these illegals come out of the shadows unless there is some kind of process that allows them to become legal and keep their jobs, even if it falls short of a path to citizenship. And immigrants will keep coming illegally in search of a better life unless there is some legal way they can apply for and find work.

Yet by denouncing any such compromise as "amnesty," the restrictionists have poisoned their own voters against accepting the only policy with a chance to solve the problem. When Indiana's Mike Pence, a stalwart conservative, offered a compromise that included a guest worker program, the Tancredo brigades savaged even him as endorsing "amnesty." Rather than see the Pence plan as a way out of their political mess, Mr. Hastert failed to defend him. On immigration, Mr. Tancredo is now the real speaker of the House.

Even if all of this somehow works this election year, the long term damage to the GOP could be considerable. Pete Wilson demonized illegal aliens to win re-election as California Governor in 1994, but at the price of alienating Latino voters for a decade. The smarter Republicans--President Bush, Karl Rove, Senator John McCain, Colorado Governor Bill Owens and Florida Governor Jeb Bush--understand that the GOP can't sustain its majority without a larger share of the Hispanic vote. Making Mr. Tancredo the spokesman on this issue is a surefire way to make Hispanics into permanent Democrats.

Every poll we've seen says that the public favors an immigration reform of the kind that President Bush does. That's because, whatever their concerns about border security, Americans are smart enough to know that immigrants will keep coming as long as they have the economic incentive to do so. They also don't want the social disruption favored by the deport-'em-all Tancredo Republicans.

On policy, the country could do worse than pass nothing this year on immigration. We've muddled through for years, and at 4.6% unemployment the U.S. economy is easily absorbing the illegal workforce. But having turned the immigration issue into a rallying cry, Republicans have put themselves at political risk if they do nothing. If the GOP finds itself in the minority next year, we trust its restrictionists will stand up and take a bow.

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