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William Rivers Pitt: Humpty-Dumpty Republicans

Humpty-Dumpty Republicans

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Monday 15 May 2006

I will cut back legal immigration to 250,000 a year and I will defend America's border, if necessary with American troops.

-Pat Buchanan, 27 October 2000

George W. Bush will be delivering a big speech tonight on immigration, and will specifically announce the deployment of National Guard troops along the southern border of the United States. The New York Times reported today on the motivation behind this speech, stating that, "White House officials said late last week that they believed the president's address on Monday would be welcomed by voters, who have told pollsters they would like to see tighter control of the borders."

This, while true, is not the entirety of the story. The main reason for the delivery of this speech, and for the deployment of Guard troops to the Rio Grande, has to do with GOP inside baseball and the looming midterm elections. The powerful Republican coalition between movement conservatives and business conservatives has shown significant signs of fraying lately, and the issue of immigration is at the heart of the matter.

Before the immigration debate blew up, the GOP coalition was one big (mostly) happy family. The business conservatives - the ones with the money - happily deployed the movement conservatives - the ones with the causes - as their "useful idiots" on the ground. So long as the GOP remained stalwartly against Roe v. Wade, and so long as Bush continued to mouth platitudes about Jesus, the movement conservatives would keep voting Republican, and the business conservatives would get the tax cuts and deregulation they live for. It was a match literally made in heaven, if you believe what you read on GOP direct-mail flyers.

Underneath the seamless facade, however, was the fault line of immigration. No other subject is as divisive, or as potentially destructive to the GOP coalition, as this. In 1992, Pat Buchanan forced George H. W. Bush to run a far more conservative campaign for president by hammering on the immigration issue, which ultimately contributed to Bush's defeat at the hands of Clinton. In 1996, Buchanan was at it again, beating Dole in New Hampshire and forcing him to spend far more than he could afford. Again, the immigration issue was central to Buchanan's message.

The divide here is straightforward: The movement conservatives want massive border security, want to deport every illegal immigrant in the country and want to make citizenship harder to obtain. The business conservatives, on the other hand, enjoy having a massive pool of illegal laborers to tap because they can pay those laborers slave wages, avoid having to offer them insurance and thus pad their profits.

This divide was ripped wide open when two competing bills appeared in Congress recently. The House bill, a truly draconian piece of work offered by Rep. Sensenbrenner, pandered to the movement conservatives. The Senate bill, which allowed for citizenship for illegal immigrants after a long series of hurdles, was more suitable to the business conservatives. The two bills were incompatible from the start and the entire debate collapsed into a blaze of acrimony.

George W. Bush, as leader of the Republican party, was the inheritor of this mess. Though he owes his political success to the work of the movement conservatives, Bush's heart lies with the businessmen. He voiced support for the Senate immigration bill, and then watched as his favorability numbers among the GOP grassroots dropped like a ruptured duck. A recent New York Times/CBS poll placed his approval rating on the immigration issue at 26%, and for the first time, Republicans appear to be abandoning him.

It was, strictly speaking, a terrible time for this kind of division to erupt within the GOP ranks. Iraq is a mess, Goss has quit the CIA under terribly suspicious circumstances, the #3 man at CIA just had his house searched, the scandal surrounding Duke Cunningham has reached into the heart of the House Intelligence, Appropriations and Armed Services Committees, Rep. Jerry Lewis of California is the newest name on the list of those being looked at, the Abramoff scandal continues to walk and talk, Karl Rove has reportedly been indicted by Patrick Fitzgerald in the Plame investigation, and it seems that the NSA has been harvesting millions upon millions of telephone calls from Americans to Americans, despite strident denials by Bush administration officials that anything of the sort has been going on.

And the midterm elections are coming. And a Harris interactive poll has Bush's overall approval rating at 29%. And the approval ratings for this Republican congress make that 29% look tall and mighty by comparison.

There isn't much Mr. Bush can do about this long laundry list of scandals and catastrophes during his speech tonight; it is all going to have to unspool itself in due course. He can, however, try to pull together the separating spheres of his coalition. By announcing a significant military presence along the southern border, Bush is seeking to mollify the movement conservatives, without whom any attempt at national electoral victory would be a comprehensive waste of time.

He will also, in all likelihood, voice support for the Senate version of the immigration bill, thus mollifying the business conservatives who write all the checks during campaign time. Somewhere in there, or afterwards, he and his spinners will have to explain how deploying National Guard forces, which are already massively overtaxed because of Iraq, won't weaken our military even further. There will also be the matter of how he plans to pay for this operation, given the ocean of red ink currently flowing through Washington.

It will be, in the end, one heck of a straddle, and the stakes are tremendously high. If Bush is unable to bring the Republican coalition back together again in time for the midterms, a lot of conservative voters will stay home on election day. The Democrats could conceivably pick up enough seats to regain the majority, and if that happens, the subpoenas will start flying out of Conyers's office faster than one can say, "What did the president know and when did he know it?"

Reading tea leaves is a dangerous hobby, and nobody knows for sure how all of this is going to shake out. But the malevolently divisive spirit of Pat Buchanan still stalks the highways and back roads of New Hampshire, and the immigration issue he used to snap the campaigns of two consecutive Republican presidential candidates remains as dangerous now as it was in 1992. Can Bush's speech tonight stuff this genie back into the bottle? Watch and see.


William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.

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