Betting the House
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
In light of the news that House Republicans will take their anti-immigrant show on the road this August instead of passing a reform bill, we can’t help but suspect that Speaker Hastert is moonlighting as Rahm Emanuel’s chief adviser over at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Few strategies seem as calculated to play to one of the Democrats’ few strengths while calling particular attention to one of the Republicans’ most glaring weaknesses.
The move comes as House Republicans should be buckling down to intensive negotiations with their Senate counterparts over a final reform package. The House passed an enforcement-only bill last December and that legislation needs to be reconciled with a less protectionist bill recently passed by the Senate. House Republicans seem to have convinced themselves that Americans do not support immigrants, despite evidence to the contrary. Now they are maneuvering themselves more deeply into a corner.
Polls, and an actual election result, underscore this point. A poll of 807 likely Republican voters conducted last fall by the Manhattan Institute found that 72% actually supported immigration reform resembling the Senate’s proposal – stepping up border enforcement but also allowing illegal immigrants already in the country to step out of the shadows and onto the path toward eventual citizenship. The poll also found that translating directly into electoral support. A full 71% of respondents said that they would be more likely to vote for their member of Congress if he supported such a plan.
That has already come to bear in the race to replace Rep. Randy Cunningham in California. The Republican, Brian Bilbray, edged to victory over the Democratic, Francine Busby, by barely 50% to 45%. If anti-immigrant politics were going to win landslides, surely this would have been the place. The district supported President Bush by a 10 percentage point margin over Senator Kerry in 2004. It is also anti-immigrant. Both Cunningham and Mr. Bilbray, himself a former congressman, scored well with anti-immigration groups. Cunningham even cosponsored legislation eliminating birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants.
Despite Ms. Busby’s own gaffes on the issue – late in the campaign she made comments that sounded like she was encouraging non-citizens to vote – Mr. Bilbray’s anti-immigrant rhetoric failed to rally a base that, in 2004, had carried Cunningham to victory over Ms. Busby by a double-digit margin. Let it be a warning that Americans understand that more border enforcement alone is not a winning formula. With 12 million illegal immigrants in the country, many Americans have come into contact with illegal immigrants and understand that they are important for the economy are usually hardworking people out for a better life instead of monsterish near-terrorists.
Republicans would be dumb to bet the House on protectionism. Voters are shrewd enough to grasp that at bottom building walls against immigration is a form of protectionism, which has been a losing issue at the polls for decades. What was the name of that Democratic majority leader who wanted to be president? Dick Gepwell? Gepworth? Gepharken? Gephardt? Something like that. He led the protectionist faction of our debate for years. It didn’t work. Better for the Republicans to get out on the hustings and talk about growth – making tax cuts permanent, cutting regulations, making a sound currency, winning the war on terror. Those are the issues that won them the leadership of all three branches of government.