The Hispanic Strategy—and maybe Mr. Bush—flops
April 01, 2002, 05:00 AM
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As presidential weeks go, the last few probably have not been the best that George W. Bush has ever enjoyed. First, his sly lobbying for amnesty for illegal aliens nearly flopped in the House of Representatives, faces major obstacles in the Senate and was greeted with sneers by even his most faithful followers in the conservative press. Then the President alienated conservatives even further by calling for increased foreign aid for Latin American nations on his expedition to South America last week.

Forced on his return from South America to sign into law a major campaign finance measure he had opposed, the president then had to ponder the impending collapse of his grand strategy of winning Hispanic votes by further (and apparently bottomless) pandering to Hispanics. Conservative commentator John O'Sullivan noted that the results of the Democratic primary in Mr. Bush's home state of Texas "strengthened the evidence that the Hispanic vote is drifting firmly into the Democratic camp—irrespective of the GOP's immigration policies."

But with all due respect to Mr. O'Sullivan, an unusually sharp political observer, the Hispanic vote never exactly drifted out of the Democratic Party. Even in 2000, when Mr. Bush was predicted to win a majority of Hispanics in Texas, he carried only 42 percent of Hispanic voters. Nevertheless, Mr. O'Sullivan's point—that the presidential pander plans have pancaked—is well taken and worth pointing out to those in the White House with the ears to hear it.

While the White House ears are listening, they might also strain to pick up what the president's closest supporters in the "conservative movement" are saying about amnesty. National Review denounced the amnesty vote, as did the Washington Times editorial page, as did the American Conservative Union. Their opinions are striking, if only because they have seldom opposed the Bush administration at all and never before to my knowledge on an immigration issue and because it is precisely on the favor of these ideological organs that Mr. Bush depends for his legitimacy as a conservative (and maybe even as the occupant of the White House) at all.

The president of course still enjoys high popularity ratings because of the Afghan war but these can be expected to fade, maybe even before the congressional elections this fall and almost certainly before the next presidential election, when Mr. Bush will need to win more than the minority of American voters he carried in the last one. To win them, since he is unwilling to court the white vote that put his predecessors in the White House repeatedly, he can only keep flogging his flopped Hispanic strategy. And that means more amnesty and more lockstep with Mexican President Vicente Fox, who not only continues to demand amnesty for all illegal Mexicans but also this week pronounced on a Fox News Channel program that they weren't "illegal" anyway. "They are not illegals," Mr. Fox insisted. "They are people that come there to work, to look for a better opportunity in life," and "let's make them legal so that you don't have the fear that they might become terrorists." Hello?

As bizarre as Mr. Fox' reasoning is, it was echoed by a Wall Street Journal editorial that pronounced last week, that "amnesty presupposes wrongdoing, and many immigrants who stand to benefit from this legislation have done nothing wrong. They entered the country legally and hold a visa that has either expired or is about to." Yes, but you see, when immigrants remain in the country after their visas have expired, they become illegal aliens, and if you think breaking the law is wrong, as most conservatives do, then those who "stand to benefit from" amnesty are law breakers and wrong-doers.

The Wall Street Journal seems to be unique, as its loopy logic on immigration issues often renders it, since both Beltway as well as grassroots conservatives are all upset with the president, and amnesty for illegals for most of them seems to be the main reason. "He's been getting a pass from us until now," activist Phyllis Schlafly told the Washington Times last week, "but the amnesty bill is what tipped it over for us. I agree with Senator Robert Byrd. This is 'sheer lunacy.'" Mrs. Schlafly remains a powerful voice among rank-and-file conservatives, and the White House would be well-advised to pay attention when she growls.

With 90 percent positive ratings among Republicans, Mr. Bush has a long way to fall, but he could easily take the drop, as his father did in 1992. If he and his White House counsellors have brains as well as ears, they need to forget about amnesty, Vicente Fox, and courting the elusive butterfly of Hispanic Republicans and start thinking about how to keep the troops who gave him the party nomination in the first place.

COPYRIGHT CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

April 01, 2002