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The political cost of the GOP's immigration policy

September 19, 2007 |  1:20 pm

Michael Gerson, who as onetime chief White House speechwriter may or may not have penned some of President Bush's most memorable lines, today provides his latest take on the debate within Republican ranks over immigration policy.  And he warns that the vibe emanating from the party could sink it.

Gerson, in his nationally syndicated column, takes note of recent efforts by Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani to paint each other as weak-kneed about cracking down on illegal immigrants.  Gerson's view: "One gets the impression of decent men intimidated by the vocal anger of elements of their own party."

As he describes what he sees as the potentially dire political consequences of a GOP stiff-arm of the Latino vote, he writes: "I have never seen an issue where the short-term interests of Republican presidential candidates in the primaries were more starkly at odds with the long-term interests of the party itself."

The greater focus on illegal immigration among Republicans, compared to Democrats, was starkly illustrated ...

by the recent findings of a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll.

Also today, a front-page Washington Post story keyed to the decision by the main GOP presidential candidates to forego a forum at largely black Morgan State University in Baltimore includes this pithy quote from Jack Kemp, the party's 1996 vice presidential nominee:  "We sound like we don't want immigration; we sound like we don't want black people to vote for us. What are we going to do -- meet in a country club in the suburbs one day?"

Kemp long has argued for a more inclusive GOP, and Gerson has weighed in previously on the political danger he fears his party is courting.  In a May column, he wrote: "Conceding Latinos to the Democrats in perpetuity is a stunning failure of political confidence."  (This piece, in turn, spurred a spirited rejoinder from the "Lonewacko" blog, which bills itself as offering "non-'liberal' coverage of immigration, Iraq, terrorism, multiculturalism, Los Angeles, California, privacy, and occasionally celebrities and wacky humor.")

The back-and-forth got us wondering about California political stats -- specifically, the changes in Republican legislative representation in the post-Proposition 187 era.

The famed 1994 ballot measure sought to get tough on illegal immigration at the state level and was embraced by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson as part of his reelection strategy.  He won easily and the proposition passed overwhelmingly (it was a GOP year across the nation in general).

But the courts later voided the initiative's key components.  And the backlash among Latinos paid long-term dividends for the state Democratic Party, as the numbers show.

In the immediate aftermath of the '94 vote, California's delegation in the U.S. House was evenly split: 27 Democrats, 25 Republicans. Now, Democrats have a solid majority, 34 to 19.  Likewise, in the state's 80-member Assembly, Republicans and Democrats were virtually tied following the '94 vote. Now, Democrats dominate 48 to 32.

Other factors played key roles in these shifts (not the least of which was Democratic control of the redistricting process).  And as several recent studies have shown, the Latino allegiance to the Democratic banner is not set in stone; the state party's share of the electorate has actually dropped since 1994, as more and more voters register as independents.

On election days, though, voters flock to the party that they believe best serves their self-interest, regardless of their registration.  And if Gerson has got it right, what happened in California may be replicated in much of the rest of the nation over the next decade or two.

-- Don Frederick

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