Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Elections have consequences. After losing the popular vote for the fifth time in the past six presidential elections, I expected to see Republicans make some changes or risk following the dinosaur and the dodo on the path to extinction.
But even I have been surprised to see so many changes so soon, beginning with the Grand Old Party’s brand new vigor for making new amigos with Hispanic voters.
For the first time since the collapse of President George W. Bush’s bipartisan immigration-reform effort in 2007, a genuine debate over immigration is re-emerging within the GOP. The debate stalled primarily over Bush’s proposed “pathway to citizenship” to bring the estimated 11 million people in the U.S. illegally out of the shadows. To the right wing, “pathway to citizenship” has been the same as “amnesty for lawbreakers.” They wanted to “secure the borders” first, and then maybe, just maybe, they would talk about amnesty.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential campaign imploded partly because Mitt Romney and some of his other primary opponents pounced on his humane and realistic policy of extending in-state college enrollment benefits to undocumented immigrants. Arguments like that, as well as Romney’s odd suggestion that illegal immigrants might “self-deport” under his presidency, help to explain why Bush received 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, compared with Romney’s 29 percent in November.
If Romney had received the same percentage of the Hispanic vote as Bush, we’d be calling him President-elect Romney now. It was appropriate in that light for the former president to help get a new debate rolling with a recent speech in Dallas. Bush called for Republicans to embrace a “benevolent spirit” when writing national labor and immigration policy, sounding themes he has promoted since the beginning of his presidency.
Republican Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas pushed the ball further down the field with their own version of the Dream Act, a failed bill that would have allowed a path to citizenship for immigrants brought here illegally as children. Their version, called the Achieve Act, would give legal status to undocumented youths but not a pathway to citizenship. Unfortunately, without a path to citizenship, the proposed bill would leave the youngsters in a limbo between neither “illegal” nor citizens, for an indefinite length of time. The Achieve Act needs work, but it’s a start.
At least, we appear to be seeing an end, for now, to the can-you-top-this hysteria that produced dangerous legislation such as Arizona’s “show your papers” law. It requires police to ask people about their immigration status if an officer believes they may be in the country illegally. Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker said as a candidate that he would sign such a law. But he now says he would fight any Arizona-like proposal. A spokesman said Walker changed his mind after doing more research, according to the Green Bay Press-Gazette. It’s not hard to believe Romney’s vote count had an effect, too.
Will the party’s new attitude work? Even Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and a longtime proponent of reduced immigration rates, sees hope for “a common ground on immigration,” he wrote in a recent blog, with “amnesty for long-term, deserving illegal aliens in exchange for an end to future mass immigration” after enforcement tools are beefed up.
Yet I think Richard Land, a leading conservative evangelical leader, had the right idea last year when he said fellow Republicans who called the pathway “amnesty” needed to get “a course in remedial English.” To get “amnesty,” he said, “you’ve got to have done something wrong. These young people are innocent.”
With a more compassionate conservatism like that, Republicans will have a better chance to reach more voters in constituencies that are growing instead of relying on those whose population percentages are shrinking. Today’s problems call for a vigorous, innovative debate. For that, we need two healthy parties, at least.
Besides, I’ve seen what happens when Democrats get too cocky after Republican defeats. They become their own worst enemies, just like Republicans do.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He writes from Washington.