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The Free Congress © Commentary:

Immigration Policy: Last Straw For Conservatives?
By Paul M. Weyrich
January 13, 2004


Some time ago I was asked by the Washington Post if I thought concern by conservatives over the spending issue would effect the 2004 elections. In other words, would conservatives be so angry over discretionary domestic spending - which is twice the rate under President Bush than it was under President Clinton - that they would consider voting for a third party candidate or even staying home. I said such a revolt, if it occurred, would probably not happen in time for this year's election. I got one e-mail contradicting my position from the editorial page editor of the Mobile Register. We even ran his comments in Notable News Now to see if they would prompt other responses. (We always hold out the possibility that we may be wrong). But that very provocative response from Quin Hillyer did not prompt other responses. Thus, we stand by our original statement that while conservatives are angry with the spending issue, they are not inclined to do desert the President over it.

Now, however, the President has come up with a policy decision that may cause enough of his coalition to vote for a third party or to stay at home. I believe his re-election is endangered if the race turns out to be close. I am referring to the immigration program that the President announced last week. I have received dozens of e-mails telling me that the President has crossed the line with them. Thursday, I did a drive-time radio show in San Antonio. Caller after caller, including one Hispanic, said they had voted for Bush but they could not do so again.

Rush Limbaugh has carried on for days about this immigration program and he usually goes out of his way to give this President the benefit of the doubt. Even Sean Hannity, who has seldom met a Republican he can't support, is very troubled by it. Now neither Limbaugh nor Hannity is suggesting that because of the immigration issue Bush should be abandoned. But their willingness to sharply criticize the Administration in an election year gives cover to those who do want to do so.

Of course immediately whenever the immigration issue is discussed, the usual suspects point the finger at anyone who disagrees with liberalization to suggest racist motivation.

Morton Kondracke, publisher of Roll Call and a Fox News regular, calls opponents of this policy "the nativist wing of the Republican party." Interestingly not a single e-mail I received mentioned anything that could be interpreted as objecting to Bush's policy on account of race. Every single e-mail I got focused on the national security aspect of this question. A few also mentioned the abandonment of the rule of law. A government employee from Colorado, who didn't want her name used, put it this way: I voted for Bush reluctantly. Then after September 11th I was awfully glad I had done so. Now I think I may have made a mistake. I can't imagine Al Gore doing this because there would be too much Congressional opposition.

The columnist David Limbaugh, Rush's brother, opposes the Bush immigration policy but says he doesn't understand what motivates the Administration. It could, of course, be raw politics. But Bush usually rejects that approach when it is presented to him. It could be, as Tony Blankley of the Washington Times opines, the influence of some of Bush's rich business friends, who see this as a way to get cheap legal labor. That is a possibility, although these folks do not always influence Bush, especially when it comes to the social issues. Or it simply could be a nave attempt on the part of the President to reform a broken system.

Whatever his motivation, he is making the oldest mistake in politics. He is abandoning his base. His father did that when he raised taxes after pledging not to. It cost him the election. This President has been careful not to do that to any great extent and up to now has managed to keep amazing majorities of Republicans and even conservatives in his camp. But with this action, as Ann Coulter suggests, the President has ceded California to the Democrats. But for the fact that he is a native son of Texas, he also would be in trouble there.

The greatest concern of his base is over national security. They see this as a way for our enemies to be here legally - so long as they have a job. The illegals can use the time here to complete their plans to cause havoc and chaos.

"I don't understand how," writes a Republican county chairman from the Southwest, "that a President this smart can produce something this ill-conceived."

Supposedly this plan will be attractive to Hispanics. But as one caller I had in San Antonio said, "I'm Hispanic. But I don't want to be pandered to." Some of the Hispanic organizations blasted the plan as not going nearly far enough. It is not at all clear that Bush will attract new support to make up for that which is being lost.

At any rate, Bush clearly has stepped on a land mine with his immigration initiative. This is not like other issues. Emotions run so deep on immigration that once voters are lost over this issue it will be next to impossible to get them back.

And while I said there was not enough of a revolt on the spending issues to cause a revolt, it could be that immigration in addition to spending may push some voters over the cliff.

Rep. LaMar Smith, an expert on immigration, says he can't imagine something this controversial passing the Congress in an election year. I can. Unless Democrats just want to vote no to embarrass the President, most of them favor the Bush plan and there will be enough Republicans loyal to Bush to garner the votes needed to pass the measure.

It won't matter if 2004, contrary to expectations, is a runaway election for Bush. If, on the other hand, this is a close election, enough of Bush's base may just stay at home to hand the victory to the Democrats.

Paul Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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