The Double-Edged GOP Wedge
George Bush's approval ratings are at their lowest point and not, as sane people might imagine, solely because of Iraq. While the vast majority of the public think that his ego-driven war is a disaster with body bags, the thirty percent of the country who think there is no sacrifice too big for someone else to make in the war against brown people are unmoved and unmoveable. They're just a little disappointed it's not happening here.
Every time immigration is in the headlines, Bush's poll numbers go into the tank because it starts to cut into the base. I mentioned this when the supplemental won approval because i think there are also lessons to be learned here for Democrats — the wingnuts aren't blaming Democrats for the immigration bill any more than vociferous liberals are blaming Republians for the toothless supplemental.
As Tom Schaller writes in Salon:
Immigration is especially perilous for the GOP because it is what might be called a "double-edged" wedge issue. It not only pits the party's base against a large and quickly growing pool of potential new Republicans — 41 million Hispanics — but also pits two key parts of the existing base against each other. The Wall Street wing of the GOP, which finances the party, wants to keep open the spigot of pliant and cheap Spanish-speaking labor. It finds itself opposed by much of the Main Street wing, which provides millions of crucial primary and general election votes and would like to build a fence along the Mexican border as high as Lou Dobbs' ratings or the pitch of Pat Buchanan's voice. And it's simply impossible for any political party to win if it has to choose between money and votes.
This is especially interesting because, as Schaller notes, what we are watching play out with Bush and the base is Karl Rove's worst nightmare:
Why have Republicans found themselves on the point of this wedge? Because in the two decades since the last major immigration measure, the makeup of the national Republican Party and the demography of the country have both changed dramatically. In 1986, radio talkers like Limbaugh could not harness the power of millions of devoted daily listeners to bring national Republican political figures to heel, and the Hispanic vote share was negligible. Twenty years later, Limbaugh is the most popular talk radio host in America, and there are millions of Spanish-speaking immigrants living alongside Rush's listeners in the kinds of red states where Spanish was rarely heard before. At the same time, the Latino vote has grown to 10 million. The GOP is now forced to choose between its reliable base of close-the-border, English-only cultural whites and the rapidly growing bloc of swing-voting Hispanics.
The demographic winds explain why Karl Rove has been obsessed with corralling the Hispanic vote since he was the little-known sidekick of a would-be Texas governor. He made George Bush a uniquely successful candidate among Latino voters in both state and federal elections by embracing Hispanic culture and avoiding any whiff of anti-immigrant rhetoric. After Bush won a startling 40 percent of the Hispanic votes in 2004, double the GOP total from a decade earlier, the Democrats rightly panicked. The conventional wisdom among pollsters like Republican Matt Dowd — a former Democrat who admits he was attracted to Bush precisely because of the then-Texas governor's views about Hispanic assimilation — was that if Republicans could reach 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, they would be unbeatable, but if they sank below 30 percent, they would be in a world of electoral trouble. Sure enough, after many 2006 Republican congressional candidates ran nasty, anti-immigrant ads — some juxtaposing the faces of Hispanic immigrants with Islamic terrorists — the GOP share of the Hispanic vote collapsed to 29 percent in the midterm cycle. "The Republicans have to choose if they want to be a 21st-century party, and right now they are making decisions like they're a 20th-century party," says the New Democrat Network's Rosenberg. His organization took many of those attack ads and rebroadcast them on Univision to remind Hispanics which of the two parties had their best interests in mind.
Rush won't shut his fat mouth because he knows it's a fabulous way to get the lizard brains frothing. Meanwhile Lou Dobbs may think "illegal aliens" is a technical term, but millions of Hispanic voters understand what Laura Flanders is saying when she patiently tries to explain that it's dehumanizing. They know that the Minutemen are something other than the honest upstanding patriots Dobbs disingenuously paints them to be and what he is doing when he does not take credit for the fact that he's playing to an audience comprised largely (though by no means solely) of those whose sentiments are grounded in xenophobia and bigotry. Both progressives and wingnuts hate the guest worker program in the new bill but Bush and the Blue Dogs had to offer that up as a sop to the Wall Street wing to get their support. The clash of interests it provoked guaranteed a media cacaphony that once again started Bush's poll numbers doing the Coreolis Cha-Cha.
Despite the fact most sane people realize things are going badly in Iraq, McCain and Romney feel perfectly safe pounding their chests this morning with a bunch of bellicose nonsense about Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama voting to "endanger our troops" because they know that most rational Americans think they're nuts but they need to solidify the base in order to catapult themselves into the White House. There's no danger for them in being as loony as they wanna be because there is no price.
On the other hand, McCain's position on immigration makes him look like Ted Kennedy to the base, and no amount of claptrap about the precious little fetuses is going to make up for that:
[T}he corporate wing's squishiness on immigration is already creating enormous problems for the GOP in the next election. Among the party's 2008 presidential front-runners, John McCain has borne the brunt of the backlash, since he is the hated reform bill's chief GOP cheerleader in the Senate and was the coauthor of its 2005 forerunner. On the conservative blog Red State, Hunter Baker wondered if McCain's immigration stance has effectively neutralized any advantage he might otherwise have been able to establish over Giuliani and Romney on abortion and other social issues. Perhaps showing the stress, during a contentious mark-up meeting on the reform bill,McCain said "fuck you" to fellow Republican Sen. John Cornyn and called Cornyn's objections to the legislation "chickenshit." On a conference call with a group of conservative bloggers, McCain then accused rival Mitt Romney of flip-flopping on immigration: "Maybe I should wait a couple weeks and see if [Romney's position] changes. Maybe he can get out his small varmint gun and drive those Guatemalans off his yard."
(Okay I admit it the Romney crack made me laugh.)
Only marginal candidates like Duncan Hunter, Ron Paul, and Tom Tancredo, who has made it his signature issue, had sided explicitly with the populist base prior to the recent unpleasantness. Now Giuliani is dancing away from his own overtly pro-immigrant past, and the ever-elastic Romney has positioned himself as McCain's worst enemy on immigration. Sam Brownback, who cosponsored John McCain's original reform bill, decided in April to renounce Satan and recast himself as a nativist.
No matter what the 2008 candidates say or do, however, and regardless of how they fare in the primaries or the general election, the party's elite seems to know what it wants for the long term. The nation's Hispanic population continues to grow at more than 3 percent per year. The party's power players have decided that it is better to act now rather than later, even if Main Street rebels, because later the consequences can only be more dire. Their actions, including their support for the immigration reform bill, will either pull the GOP back from the brink, or push the party over it.
Many of us held our noses and voted for Democrats whose social positions we didn't agree with in 2006 because we knew that in the majority they'd be able to keep bills on choice, for instance, from coming to the floor in the way they had when the GOP used them to embarrass and fracture the party when it had a chokehold on congress. If the Democratic party leadership wants to use its power to fragment the GOP there do seem to be better ways than ducking for cover and hoping Iraq blows up in George Bush's face, even as they risk sitting down in a minefield themselves.