Hostettler For The Nation
January 15, 2009, 04:00 AM
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[Previously by W. James Antle III: 'Open Heart' Methodists—Empty-Headed Immigration Activists]

Like life itself, politics isn't always fair. Just ask former Congressman John Hostettler, a six-term Republican from Indiana. On most of the big questions that President Bush got disastrously wrong—the unfunded Medicare prescription drug benefit, the unpopular war in Iraq, and, of particular importance to VDARE.COM readers, the amnesty for illegal immigrants traveling under the name of "comprehensive immigration reform"—Hostettler got it right.

Among prominent Republicans, only Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul were more independent—and more willing to oppose the Bush administration from the right.

Yet that didn't prevent Hostettler from being swept out of office in the midterm elections' anti-Bush tide. His House seat was one of the very first called for the Democrats in 2006, as he took just 39 percent of the vote against a challenger who imitated him on immigration and wanted it both ways on Iraq.

To add insult to injury, Hostettler's loss was cited by the Wall Street Journal as a data point against both immigration restrictionists (in a gloating editorial) and antiwar conservatives (by James Taranto). After all, Hostettler stood like a stone wall against the 2006 amnesty bill from his perch as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee. Also, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, he was one of just six House Republicans to vote against authorizing the war. Obviously, the argument went, for Republicans there was no winning alternative to what Steve Sailer has described as Invade the World/Invite World.

Indeed, that's the line President Bush himself has taken in his farewell tour, unabashed by presiding over a spectacular decline in Republican fortunes.  In an exit interview with FOX News, alongside his father, the president boasted that he did not "bail out my political  party" by withdrawing troops "during the darkest days of Iraq." (It may have been the only bailout he opposed.) Then in his final press conference, Bush lectured Republicans to be "open minded"—presumably as in open borders—rather than "anti-immigrant."

Further compounding the injustice is the reception given Hostettler's book explaining his war vote, Nothing for the Nation: Who Got What Out of Iraq. Hostettler was an early skeptic of WMD claims that were originally accepted even by most mainstream war critics. Despite that obvious news angle, no major publisher was interested in his book. The ex-congressman had to release it through his own small publishing house. (He will probably make more money if you buy the book direct from its website).

When Nothing For The Nation hasn't been ignored, it has elicited the usual smears from the usual suspects. Based on the book's treatment of neoconservatives, Abe Foxman charges the congressman with "outlandish notions of secret Jewish cabals". [Here We Go Again: Blaming the Jews for the Iraq War, by Abraham H. Foxman, August 14, 2008] But Hostettler—an evangelical sympathetic to Christian Zionism and the state of Israel—makes no such noxious claims. His foreign-policy arguments may be debatable, but he makes specific criticisms of specific individuals rather than any ethnic or religious group.

As a leader of the patriotic immigration reform movement, of course, Hostettler is used to being called names. In the spring and summer of 2006, as the immigration debate raged on Capitol Hill, he was one of the legislators who argued that House Republicans should defy the Senate and defy their own president by refusing to bring "comprehensive" immigration legislation up for a vote.

Then-House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner was instrumental in keeping the GOP leadership from caving. Tom Tancredo, then-chairman of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, was the public face of the anti-amnesty congressmen. But Hostettler, at the helm of the House's most important immigration subcommittee, also played a key role.

Hostettler's position on Iraq failed to gain much traction among his fellow Republicans. Seven Republicans in the entire Congress voted against the war resolution and only about as many oppose the war today. But on immigration, Hostettler's side carried the day. According to the Washington Post, 75 percent of the House Republican Conference opposed the Senate immigration bill.[Immigration Deal at Risk as House GOP Looks to Voters, By Jim VandeHei and Zachary A. Goldfarb, May 28, 2006] That legislation only passed the upper chamber due to a high number of Democratic votes.

Opposition wasn't limited to conservative hardliners. Such liberal Republicans as Chris Shays of Connecticut and Charlie Bass of New Hampshire also refused to support the Senate's approach to immigration policy. With such a high percentage of the Republican caucus opposed, the leadership had good reason to remain steadfast—despite pressure from their president and their Senate colleagues.

In September 2005, President Bush received an early warning sign that his expansive view of immigration policy wasn't going to carry the day among House Republicans. Hostettler, along with past immigration subcommittee chairman Lamar Smith, sent the president a toughly worded  pro-enforcement letter:

"We write as Members of Congress concerned about immigration. Recently there has been much discussion of new guestworker or temporary worker programs. However, we believe that there should be no new guestworker program or any expansion of the number of lawful residents in our country until the Executive Branch better enforces current immigration laws.

"History has shown that enforcement provisions are ignored and underfunded while guestworker and amnesty provisions are always implemented.

"The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act contained amnesties for farm workers and other illegal aliens as well as employer sanctions and other enforcement provisions. Unfortunately, the amnesties were carried out and the enforcement was not.

"The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act also contained enforcement provisions that were not implemented. For instance, the bill mandated the implementation of a national exit-entry tracking system for all aliens. Nine years later the exit-entry system is still not near completion…

"The American people need to see that the current laws against illegal immigration are being enforced before any guestworker program can be considered."

At the time, Hostettler and Smith could find just 17 cosigners for their letter. But by 2007, when the amnesty juggernaut got rolling again, there was opposition from across the political spectrum. The warmed-over Senate immigration bill once again failed, even with Democrats controlling both houses—and Congress shorn of members like Hostettler.

Why then did Hostettler and the Republicans lose? The conventional wisdom says that the anti-amnesty campaign was a political liability, something that alienated Hispanic voters while motivating no significant constituency to vote Republican in compensating numbers.

But clearly that's not the judgment most savvy politicians made. They voted the amnesty bill down not just in 2006 but also in 2007, despite Democratic control of Congress.

Red-state Democrats and Republicans running for reelection were among the most likely to oppose the various iterations of Bush-McCain-Kennedy. They knew which way the wind was blowing.

Also, hardly anybody outside of safe Democratic districts openly campaigned in favor of amnesty. While the substance of their positions varied, most candidates in competitive races used the rhetoric of border security and immigration enforcement.

Hostettler's 2006 Democratic challenger, Brad Ellsworth, was a case in point. He did not campaign against the incumbent's immigration stance. In fact, he mirrored it: Ellsworth opposed the 2006 amnesty bill and called for tighter enforcement. This Ellsworth statement could have come from Hostettler himself:

"I oppose granting amnesty to people who have broken the law by entering our country illegally.  Instead, we must stop the flow of illegal immigration, secure our borders, and enforce the laws already on the books

"A strong immigration policy starts with effective border control, so the Department of Homeland Security must be given the resources they need to secure our borders. This isn't just an illegal immigration problem, it's a homeland security problem. And Congress must address it." 

Unlike many politicians who ran for Congress using such rhetoric in 2006, Ellsworth has actually voted that way since taking office (though he hasn't shown the same leadership on the issue as Hostettler—nor the same interest in more controversial issues like birthright citizenship or reducing legal immigration). Ellsworth has received an A-minus rating from Americans for Better Immigration. He has teamed up with fellow Democrat Heath Shuler on the SAVE Act, which promotes attrition through enforcement. And he introduced his own e-verify bill, the Legal Employment Verification Act.

It is therefore clear, despite open-borders propaganda to the contrary, that the immigration issue did not defeat Hostettler in 2006—nor did it lead to the Republicans' loss of Congress. Democrats like Ellsworth read the politics of immigration, especially as it played in their own districts, exactly the same way.

It remains to be seen how the Republican Party will deal with immigration in the Age of Obama. Some Republicans will undoubtedly argue that the party is better off without principled voices like John Hostettler.

No Hosttetlers—and nothing for the nation.

W. James Antle III (email him), associate editor of The American Spectator, writes from outside Washington D.C. He profiled Hostettler in the June 17, 2006 issue of The American Conservative. [PDF 1, 2, 3]