President George W. Bush’s first postelection speech was a call for immigration reform—and an implicit rebuke of the failed GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
On Tuesday morning, the Bush Center held a conference on immigration and economic growth at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. It was only the second major policy speech the former president has delivered since leaving office, and Bush let himself wax poetic on the subject of immigration: “Not only do immigrants help build our economy, they invigorate our soul.”
The fact that Romney received just 27 percent of Hispanic vote, eight years after Bush got 44 percent, was not far from attendees’ minds, even though Romney’s name went unmentioned. Instead, the conference was an extended argument for the economic benefits of immigration, offering a new policy booklet to that effect (PDF). It was also by implication a meditation on the comprehensive immigration reform Bush backed in his second term, only to see it cannibalized by talk-radio conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh and those politicians who choose to pander to them, including Romney.
Economic growth, the angle taken in arguing for more immigration, was telling. This framing was designed to be accepted by the Republican base, making a pro-business case for immigration rather than extolling the cultural benefits of increased diversity. And while the keynote speech by James K. Glassman focused on the heroic CEO narrative of immigration—invoking Andy Grove and Sergey Brin, and the illuminating statistic that 25 percent of the nation’s start-ups are founded by immigrants—Glassman also took care to make an economic argument for low-skilled immigration. This is not a typical Tea Party applause line.
The core message of the conference was that America needs more immigrants, not fewer, in the current economic climate. It was bipartisan in tone, arguing that we should be competing for the best and the brightest, including offering green cards with graduate-school diplomas—one of the few immigration measures that Senate Republicans and Democrats agree on. Most notable was the call for comprehensive immigration reform of the kind Bush backed in 2007, including what a new book from the Bush Center calls “a compassionate solution” for undocumented workers now in the country. In a campaign season, that would be called “amnesty.”
All this is breathtakingly sensible given the tortured state of immigration debate in the Republican Party. Romney consistently pandered to the worst impulses in his party on this issue—first using it to get to the right of John McCain in 2007, and then Rick Perry in 2011. It was a cynical and short-sighted strategy, as Romney campaign manager Eric Fehrnstrom recently acknowledged—and contributed to the former governor’s pathetic lack of demographic diversity in this year’s general election.
Bush is not a proud policy wonk. But over the past four years, we have consistently been reminded of what a steadying and centering impulse he was on the most conservative wing of his party. The GOP—hell, the country—missed his voice during the unhinged ground zero mosque debate. Bush was always an advocate of religious tolerance, especially toward Islam at the height of the war on terror.
Likewise, Bush was consistent in reaching out to the Hispanic community, both as a border-state governor and as president. Xenophobic voices were not tolerated in his administration. As Bush said in Tuesday’s speech, “America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time. As our nation debates the proper course of action relating to immigration, I hope we do so with a benevolent spirit and keep in mind the spirit of immigrants.”
In the wake of Romney’s election defeat, it has fallen to another Bush—Jeb—to raise the flag for a modern and inclusive Republican Party. The fact that W. is reinforcing this message with his postpresidential center presents a clear choice to the GOP.
Comprehensive immigration reform will be on the docket in the next two years. Republicans will need to decide whether to follow the Bush-McCain-Rubio wing of its party or the likes of Limbaugh. It should be an easy call. Sadly, it is not.