As the 43rd president wrestles with the immigration issue, he should be haunted by the ghost of the 23rd president.
The career of Benjamin Harrison--elected in 1888--offers eerie similarities to that of George W. Bush. The scion of a former president, Harrison eked out a victory in the electoral college, even though he lost the popular vote. And while Harrison was an honest and competent chief executive, it was his misfortune to be on the wrong side of immigration history, and he was defeated for reelection in 1892 as millions of newly enfranchised Americans flocked to the polls to vote against him. President Bush might not be aware of that demographic precedent, but his enthusiasm for expanded immigration has cooled in light of present-day political calculation.
Last month, the Bush administration floated a plan to offer amnesty to 3 million Mexicans living in the U.S. illegally. The Democrats said fine, but why not include every other undocumented immigrant living in the U.S.--about 8 million? Many on Bush's side of the aisle were outraged; as Ralph Hallow reported in the right-tilting Washington Times, "The explosive issue is making some Republicans hotter than Texas in August."
Indeed, Republicans and their ideological allies have good reason to be afraid of an immigrant influx, based on bitter history. In Harrison's day, the late 19th century, the United States was bulging; about 10 million immigrants came to the U.S. from 1860 to 1890, helping the population to more than double, to 62.9 million. The influx of new opportunity-seekers was good for the economy but bad for the GOP. The Republicans, after all, were the Protestant party, but most of the new immigrants and their offspring were Catholic.
And so while Harrison could win the White House in 1888 despite losing the popular balloting by 100,000 votes, his presidency couldn't survive a 400,000-vote deficit four years later--a period during which 2 million new Americans moved in.
Today, the situation is comparable; the population of the U.S. has increased by 50 million in the last two decades, and Republicans fear being drowned in that demographic tide. To be sure, some on the right are cheerful. The Wall Street Journal's Paul Gigot wrote on Friday that Bush should push ahead with his amnesty program; the columnist explained that Latinos will be at least one-fifth of the voting population by 2050, and so the Republicans have no choice but to make friends with that huge bloc.
That's good long-term advice, but there's a problem: the short term. A private White House study, much mulled in Washington, found that if Bush won the same percentages of the electorate's demographic subcategories--white, black, Latino, etc.--in 2004 that he won in 2000, he would lose by 3 million votes; that's six times the size of his vote deficit last year--because the proportions within the electorate are shifting so rapidly and anti-Republicanly. And if Bush were to lose by that many votes, even the electoral college could not give him a second term.
So of course Republicans are frantic as they look ahead to 2002 and 2004. After all, it's not as if the bilingual Bush hasn't been trying hard all along to woo new Americans. And yet for all his efforts, he got less than one-third of the Latino vote in 2000, and his party did even worse: Of the 19 members of the Hispanic Caucus in the House, just three are Republicans.
On Monday, the Washington Post reported that the administration is pulling back from its original amnesty proposal. This shift threatens the GOP with an even worse outcome: Bush raised immigrant expectations, but now some might conclude that he has closed the door on openness under pressure from reactionaries in his own party.
So what can Republicans do? They might take some comfort in an additional dollop of history. After Harrison was defeated in 1892, the Democrat who replaced him, Grover Cleveland, presided over the panic of 1893. Congressional Democrats were wiped out in the bad-economy midterm election of 1894, and the Republicans, led by William McKinley, swept back into the White House in 1896, proving that ultimately economics trumps demographics. So all was well again for the GOP. But of course, poor Harrison was still out of a job.