The ghost of George W. Bush is haunting President Obama’s immigration-reform push.
The past president serves as both an unlikely inspiration and negative object lesson to the current effort. Because the plan pushed by Bush in his second term bears an uncanny resemblance to the bipartisan plan now backed by the Gang of Eight senators and hailed by Obama as the best hope for comprehensive immigration reform in a generation.
Take a look back at President Bush’s 2006 televised address to the nation on immigration reform and read it alongside President Obama’s Las Vegas take on the same subject this Tuesday. The style may be different, but the substance and sentiment are essentially the same.
In both cases, there are calls for increased border security paired with a temporary guest-worker program and requirements for businesses to e-verify their employees. There are increased visas, incentives for skilled immigration, and an eventual pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented workers in America. Above all, there is the commitment to the idea of America as a “nation of immigrants” and a sincere attempt to reconnect our functional reality to this animating aspiration.
What’s old is new. It’s an irony not lost on Bush administration alumni and family members.
“I’m encouraged by the common-sense plan outlined by a bipartisan group of senators,” former Florida governor and first brother Jeb Bush wrote in an email to The Daily Beast. “It is a good step forward in building a comprehensive immigration plan.”
“This is a redux of the Bush effort and the underlying principles,” says former White House homeland-security adviser Frances Townsend, “but it will get done this time, because politics are right.”
“There is a sense of Groundhog Day to this,” concurs Peter Wehner, the former director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives. “In retrospect, we should have led off the second term with immigration rather than Social Security, and if we had, we would have won passage of it. By waiting as long as we did in pushing the issue, at a point when our administration was weak, we failed to get immigration legislation signed into law … I also think that because Governor Romney did so poorly with Hispanics in 2012, and because the GOP primary was so aggressive in its message on immigration—to the point of offending legal immigrants—that the party is now more open to recalibration on this issue than in the past. The depth of the demographic problems facing Republicans is beginning to dawn on them in ways that hadn’t been the case before.”
Wehner’s comments cut to the heart of the lessons learned. After essentially ignoring immigration reform in its first term, the Obama administration is front-loading the ambitious effort and—for the time, at least—deferring to the Gang of Eight in hopes that it might be less polarizing if the president’s name isn’t on the bill when senators from the opposing party try to sell it to their base.
The death of the Bush bill came largely at the hands of a right-wing talk-radio revolt that attacked any path to citizenship as “amnesty.” The fact that then–presidential candidate John McCain was sponsoring the bill with none other than Ted Kennedy created an opening for competitors like Mitt Romney to try to get to McCain’s right in a play to the primary’s conservative populist cheap seats. But the other hostile front came from resurgent House Democrats who frankly did not want to give the polarizing lame-duck incumbent named Bush a political win.
Fast-forward six years, and the right-wing talk-radio crowd is weakened. The evangelical, law-enforcement, and business communities are now united behind comprehensive immigration reform. Responsible Republicans know they cannot afford to alienate Hispanics any longer. And the presence of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio—a onetime Jeb Bush protégé—is an essential addition to the coalition. “Senator Rubio, a Tea Party choice, is well respected and well liked and trusted,” adds Wehner. “With him as the lead in these negotiations, conservatives are more willing to consider immigration reform than in the past. You’re not seeing the explosion of opposition now that we saw in 2007. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen; but for now, it hasn’t.”
Long story short: it’s much easier for Marco Rubio to make the case for the Senate’s bipartisan path to citizenship than to argue on behalf of President Obama’s bill, which would be a nonstarter to much of the base. And so the president wisely held off from offering his specific policy vision in the much-hyped Las Vegas speech earlier this week. It’s not unlike the reason Harry Truman gave for naming the postwar European-aid bill after his secretary of state, George Marshall: “Anything that is sent up to the Senate and House with my name on it will quiver a couple of times and then turn over and die.”
Unlike Truman and George W. Bush, however, Obama is pushing for this bill at a time of maximum political capital and national popularity, with polls showing his approval rating at nearing 60 percent.
To truly depolarize this policy debate, it’s tempting to imagine Obama enlisting President Bush to make the sale to the nation. But W. has made a determined effort to stay out of political and policy debates since leaving 1600. The first post-election policy event of the Bush Center was a conference on immigration reform, in which the former president let himself wax poetic on his unfinished legacy: “America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time,” he said. “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.”
A lead researcher the Bush Center, Matthew Denhart, hails Washington’s full circle. “It’s funny how politics work sometimes—the details of immigration reform announced this week by the Senate and White House are virtually indistinguishable from what was advanced by President Bush and other leaders in 2007 … While it’s unfortunate immigration reform failed to pass Congress five years ago and has languished ever since, the current plan holds promise to boost economic growth, which should be our country’s top priority.”
Other Bush allies, like the Goldwater Institute’s Clint Bolick, who co-authored a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed on immigration reform with Jeb Bush, are balancing optimism with skepticism as they look at the current proposal: “It is a step forward with some excellent features,” says Bolick. “But entering the country has to have a consequence, and providing a path to citizenship rather than permanent residency will encourage future illegal immigration, just as the 1986 law did. It also fails to confront preferences for distant-family members that crowd out work-based immigration. But it is great to see Republicans and Democrats coming to grips with immigration issues.”
The renewed atmosphere of something like bipartisanship is refreshing—and, of course, needed, to get anything done in a divided government.
But one final irony is worth noting. The current Gang of Eight plan learns the lesson of opposition to the 2007 proposal by front-loading border security before any progress toward a pathway to citizenship is made. The trigger mechanism and metrics for establishing this success are still unclear. But the fact is that border security dramatically increased during the Obama administration’s first term, with officials almost doubling the number of agents patrolling the border from what was in place when Bush made his speech to the nation. The walls have continued to be built, and criminal deportations have hit record highs. Combined with the effects of the Great Recession, which reduced demand for undocumented workers, the Obama administration has quietly accumulated a record of success on a front usually considered a conservative policy priority.
And so the stars seem to be aligning into one of those moments where, as Seamus Heaney once wrote, “hope and history rhyme.” Make no mistake—there is still plenty of time for Washington to screw this up. But there is urgency to the effort, rooted in the parties’ individual self-interest as well as the national interest. After all, if President Obama and President Bush can agree on the substance of something as contentious as immigration reform, surely it isn’t too much to hope that our divided Congress can find a way to reason together on this issue.