Book review by R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor
During the long debate season of 2011-12, the GOP candidates for president sparred frequently over the depth and fidelity of their conservative convictions. In many cases these exchanges proved a healthy reminder to the often large audience watching on television that these were—in theory at least—candidates with a lineage to Ronald Reagan. But at other times, those glitzy TV debates became strident, especially as presumed-leader Mitt Romney’s challengers sought to use the former governor as a stand-in for Barack Obama. Romney was pounded ceaselessly by those to his right—Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and others--over his stances on health care, abortion, marriage rights, immigration. Later, after Republicans took a shellacking at the ballot box at the hands of Obama and other Democrats, a vicious blame-game began. (See: Anatomy of a GOP Loss: Part One and Part Two, and Dispatches From the Cheap Seats at the GOP: Part Two)
There were many reasons for the tenor and tone of those debates, and many plausible explanations for the severity of Republican missteps—not the least of which was candidate Romney’s infamous misfire about the 47%, a comment which went viral and seemed to strike at the heart of the growing distinction some see between the 99% and the 1%. But, realistically, there had to be more to the GOP’s electoral deficit than that simple unguarded and inappropriately-worded aside at a fundraiser in Boca Raton. The party’s own post-election reports—official and unofficial—indicate that substantial demographic changes in the voting-age population had moved faster than the GOPs ability to adapt, a polite way of saying that the Republicans had managed to leave behind--or offend--a measurable number of voters.
In those early debates—and a few of the later ones as well—no issue seemed to inflame the rhetoric more swiftly than immigration. The mere mention of the border between the U.S. and Mexico would trigger arguably the most vitriolic exchanges between the top candidates. Occasional attempts by a few candidates to moderate the tenor—or defend their own actions, as in Rick Perry’s explanations of educational and medical benefits in Texas for children of illegal immigrants—would result in a gruesome tag-team assault on the offending party, deemed too liberal or soft on immigration. Herman Cain spoke of electrifying the border fence with potentially lethal levels of current. And though over the next day he attempted to brush the comment aside as a joke, a few days later he again embraced the concept of an electrified wall. Cain was only slightly less guarded in his anti-immigrant sentiments than were Bachmann, Gingrich and some of the other candidates.
The damage was deep, and perhaps irreversible.
Still, at the Republican convention in Tampa, hoedown scripters made a valiant attempt to moderate the situation with a procession of dynamic and energetic Latino elected officials, from Nevada’s Brian Sandoval to Puerto Rico’s Luis Fortuno, from New Mexico’s Susanna Martinez to Florida’s Marco Rubio. In the hope that there would be some positive outreach toward Latino voters, deemed by both the media and many GOP strategists as independent, the charismatic Rubio—himself viewed as potential presidential timber—was given the top honor of introducing Mitt Romney to the delegates and TV viewers. Rubio’s speech was powerful and well-crafted, but by November it had made little difference. On Election Day the deficit Republican candidates faced among Americans with a lineage to the Spanish language was fatal—perhaps more damaging than the GOP’s slippage among women voters, younger voters, independents and those vaguely described as undecided.
Indeed, a shift toward Romney of only a tiny percentage of Latino votes in several keys states—Florida, Ohio and Colorado—might have been sufficient to have moved these states into Romney’s electoral column. To be sure, such second-guessing and what-ifs are parlor games, but it does give one pause to consider the value to the Republican Party of overheated rhetoric on the issue of immigration.
A new book by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and legal scholar Clint Bolick suggest that it is time for the U.S. to reassess its approach to immigration. In Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution, Bush and Bolick (Bush is a Republican, Bolick is independent), see the complex and often emotional issues of immigration as a centrally economic challenge: the United States must now compete for talent and skills with the rest of the world, and each day we remain gridlocked in a burdensome, antiquated system for legal entry into America is a day of lost competitiveness in a mercilessly fast-paced global economy.
Bush and Bolick begin with the basic—and widely accepted notion—that our current system is broken. Hardly anyone, liberal or conservative, disagrees with that assessment. And of course from that agreed upon starting-point, things can get complicated and thorny depending on your political conviction or tilt. Much of the book is meant to be as balanced as possible without pressing the hot buttons often employed by some on the conservative side of the issue. Economics, in their view, should trump the emotional factors.
Additionally, Bush and Bolick see the issue as not merely one of economic importance to U.S. competiveness, but also critical to the future success of the Republican Party—a political group once reasonably effective at attracting the votes of Latinos and farsighted in the need to bring native-Spanish speakers into the conservative fold, seen in the 1970s and 80s as a more natural home for those with roots to places like Mexico, Cuba, Chile or Panama. Ronald Reagan once remarked “Latinos are Republicans…they just don’t know it yet.”
Bush and Bolick start by attempting to unravel the myths and canards surrounding immigration. They make a fundamental argument early in the book, a point which remains one of their touchstones throughout their 200-plus pages: jobs and work, like any other market engine, move in tandem with supply and demand. It is not coincidence that a deep and sustained recession has actually greatly reduced illegal entries into the U.S., and even reduced the total requests for legal admission. Why come to the United States if there is no work?
Secondly, Bush and Bolick argue that our current system is fragmented, confusing and hopelessly muddled—at once antiquated in some areas, broken in others. The problems seem intractable, with a backlog of requests, files and papers for many, even as tens of thousands work illegally. The costs of this affect a variety of arenas, especially health care, education and social services, not to mention the parallel price of attempting to maintain a secure border and the rising costs to state and city law enforcement.
Early in the book Bush proposes moving immigration away from the Department of Homeland Security, where it was placed in the aftermath of 9/11. Bush also suggests that the antiquated models based on family reunification are economically counter-productive. In order for the U.S. to move forward in a competitive global economy, immigration numbers must begin to shift measurably toward skills and talents as measured by supply and demand.
Bush also indicates from first-hand experience—in his former role as Florida governor--that the backlog of visa and travel requests is unacceptable, especially in times of recession. Foreign tourism alone could account for many billions of dollars of revenue spread easily across a wide swath of the market, and not only in the theme park states like California and Florida. Bush and Bolick also strongly propose a massive overhaul, not just of the system and its sometime competing bureaucratic imperatives and turf battles, but also the national conversation and attitude about immigration.
The book's final short chapter is a call to Republicans to get smart about immigration. Bush calls Romney’s defeat in 2012 a “lost opportunity” for the GOP to seize the high ground and reclaim its natural position as the party with the better understanding of economic growth and jobs creation. Republicans, Bush argues, ought to understand how easily their core values—family, taxes, middle class jobs, abortion, school choice—just to name a few, should overlap with the interests and social concerns of Latinos, and he proposes that the GOP engage in more than generalized lip-service to Hispanics nationwide.
Bush makes the point (made several times in the pages of Thursday Review last year; see Will the Latino Vote be Decisive?) that it is a myth to assume singular or monolithic voting patterns by any ethnic or linguistic group, but it is especially faulty political thinking to ascribe the same social and political motivators to various sub-groups of the Latino population. The social or economic concerns of the Cuban-American living in Tampa or Orlando are not the same priorities of the Puerto Rican living and working in Chicago, nor the Mexican-American living and working in Arizona or southern California. But GOP intransigence and hawkishness on the issue of immigration might very well push millions of native Spanish-speakers into a general alignment with a Democratic Party more willing to adapt to the changing demographics of the country.
This book reads very quickly, in part because of the deceptive size and typography: the text runs to about 225 pages but the text has been largely double-spaced, or, more precisely, one and one half spaced—placing a lot of air on each page. But it also moves quickly because Bush and Bolick have shunned reliance upon statistical minutiae and academic loftiness. This book is straightforward and blunt, and whether you agree with Bush or disagree—and regardless of your political tint and hue, these pages can be easily read in a few days without fanfare or rising blood pressure.
Perhaps this is one of Jeb Bush’s early marketing processes for what may very likely be his already carefully considered presidential ambitions. If so, Thursday Review readers will find it enlightening and useful for the future.