What does the Republican Party stand for? Is it the party of Ronald Reagan, whose economic philosophy inspired him to sign legislation that allowed more than 3 million undocumented immigrants to legalize their status? Or is it the party of David Duke, Tom Tancredo and Pat Buchanan, who see the United States being invaded by Third World hordes who threaten Western civilization? That was the question asked during a teleconference of conservative leaders and evangelical pastors this week, and it's a good one.
Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform is a loose association of grass-roots leaders and prominent officials such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; Carlos Gutierrez, secretary of Commerce under President George W. Bush; and the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. It was Rodriguez who posed the question about the soul of the Republican Party.
Thousands of immigration activists are expected to take to the streets in Los Angeles on Saturday, and their usual supporters and leftist groups will march with them. But where is the party that once led the charge on immigration reform? If there is broader support than is apparent, as Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform maintains, it is drowned out by "tea partyers" and Lou Dobbsians. It almost defies belief that just three years ago, a Republican president and lawmakers helped craft a policy that balanced border security, labor flow and legalization. Now, Arizona Sen. John McCain, one of the architects of that plan, has turned tail. Among Senate Republicans, only Lindsey Graham of South Carolina remains committed to the goal of thoughtful reform.
On Thursday, Senate Democrats released their outline for legislation. It is a reasonable compromise, calling for intensified border security but also a path to legalization. But it is already in trouble. President Obama's assessment is that immigration reform would have such difficulty passing that advancing it now may not be worth it. Graham says it stands no chance at all. And politically, they may be right. But politics change when the public pushes its leaders.
Republicans who favor reform don't have to cave to tea partyers or wait to follow the Democrats, who seem most interested in immigration reform as a device to make Republicans uncomfortable. They have a third option: Listen to the reasonable voices in their own ranks that summon the party's better angels and ask it to recapture its humane values.