God bless you Mr. President for having the courage to resuscitate this incredibly contentious and important issue. You will be scorched and criticized by the nativists. It will be very hard, maybe impossible to get done. But it’s the right thing to do and it’s actually and ultimately very good politics for you and the Democratic Party.
But get ready for a really ugly roar. In almost 30 years of politics, I’ve seen few issues burn this hot.
Immigration is one of the issues that attracted people like me, and by that I mean former Democrats and independents, to George W. Bush. As someone who grew more conservative as I got older, and increasingly disillusioned with Democratic approaches on issues like trade, I was surprised and intrigued when I saw a then-Texas Republican governor talk empathetically and emotionally on issues like education and immigration. And, unlike most Republicans, he was talking about government taking a proactive role.
If Democrats start consistently winning Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada, the electoral outlook for Republicans in the future is mighty bleak.
The No Child Left Behind Act will be one of President Bush’s enduring legacies. And it was engineered and inaugurated with a truly bipartisan coalition in Congress. Accountability, standards, and truly measuring student performance just makes sense. The only real debate about the law was and is whether or not it was adequately funded.
There was a strong consensus about the problems with education and what to do about it. Not so much with immigration. Nevertheless, President Bush, true to his campaign pledge, did his level best keep his foot on the pedal.
But, just when he was revving up the immigration debate in collaboration with President Vincente Fox in Mexico, the 9/11 attacks happened and grounded the effort until 2007, when it got caught up in presidential politics and crashed and burned.
People talk about the various problems that plagued the early stages of John McCain’s presidential campaign. But there was really only one problem: immigration and McCain’s embrace of the issue. He was cruising along just fine until he hit the immigration buzz saw and it instantly shredded him. Support among Republican primary voters plummeted, money dried up, internal management problems were exacerbated, and the campaign went into a tailspin.
McCain rewired and modified his position by reordering the sequencing of the approach, but to his credit, he never backed off comprehensive reform. One of McCain’s finest moments of the entire campaign occurred in a New Hampshire debate, when, in response to Tom Tancredo, who’s entire candidacy was fueled by anti-immigrant fervor, he told people to go to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and notice the Hispanic names etched on the wall. It was emotional, spontaneous, and very powerful.
Yet, much of the damage had already been done by the wing of the Republican Party who’s message was basically throw 12 million people out of the country, lock up everyone else, and build a wall to keep immigrants out. Of all the electoral signs that suggested it was going to be an uphill battle for McCain, the one that really got my attention was in the summer, when I saw that his support among Hispanics was at 29 percent. I remembered that George W. Bush had won with about 40 percent of Hispanics in 2000 and recalled the strategic imperative during the 2004 election to increase that number or Bush would lose. And thanks in no small measure to Bush’s continued embrace of immigration reform, he increased his support among Hispanics by three or four points, a significant contribution to his margin of victory.
But McCain did not improve his standing among Hispanics. And there’s no question that the immigration debate hurt him and Republicans among Hispanics in the 2008 race. And if Republicans expect to turn around their electoral fortunes any time in the next decade, they better find a way to put some compassion in their conservatism.
The reality is that without McCain on the ticket, Obama would have won Arizona. And if Democrats start consistently winning Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada, the electoral outlook for Republicans in the future is mighty bleak.
Obama’s critics, many among his own party, will say now is not the time for this discussion. Too many other pressing priorities. But, I think Obama Inc. understands that while they may not get it done now, the debate will be heard by two very important constituencies: the anti-immigrant forces who will crank up their talk-radio microphones to a howling screech, and Hispanics who will listen quietly and then go vote in huge numbers for Democrats.
So while some may question the timing of Obama stepping into the immigration debate, I think he knows exactly what he’s doing by stepping into this briar patch.
As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, causes, and individuals, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono. McKinnon is co-chair of Arts & Labs, a collaboration between technology and creative communities that have embraced today’s rich Internet environment to deliver innovative and creative digital products to consumers.