The immigration reform debate has highlighted a long-standing fissure in the GOP between the elitist Rockefeller business wing and the party’s conservative populist base. Whether the two groups can continue to coexist and preserve the Republican majority is increasingly doubtful as conservatives begin to consider — and in some cases cheer — the possibility that the GOP may lose control of Congress this fall.
The two camps are deeply divided. The business elites are interested in a large supply of cheap labor and support unfettered immigration and open borders. The populist base supports legal immigration but is concerned about lawlessness on our border, national sovereignty and the real security threat posed by porous borders.
There is nothing new about this division. It is a 40-year-old fight that has its roots in the cultural, economic, regional and ideological differences between the two camps. Still, most conservatives felt that after the victory of Ronald Reagan and the Republican Revolution of 1994 their point was made and the country-clubbers would know their place. They were wrong. The Rockefeller wing is now attempting to reassert its control over the party and is openly hostile toward the Reagan populists who created the Republican majority in the first place.
Major Republicans have taken to attacking others within their own party as unsophisticated nativists. In a recent Wall Street Journal column, former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie warned populists to cease and desist from promoting “border enforcement first” legislation. “Anti-immigration rhetoric is a political siren song, and Republicans must resist its lure,” he said. And in a recent editorial, the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol attacked populist Republicans for not recognizing the danger of “turning the GOP into an anti-immigration, Know-Nothing party.”
Conservatives see this kind of rhetoric as inflammatory, anti-intellectual and offensive. Far from being driven by xenophobia and intolerance, conservative populists are motivated by a profound respect for the rule of law and by a patriotic regard for America’s sovereignty and national security. Upholding the rule of law and protecting our country’s borders is important to conservative populists and to most Americans.
To make their argument, some establishment Republicans are invoking Ronald Reagan’s name. In fact, Reagan argued that it was our government’s duty to “humanely regain control of our borders and thereby preserve the value of one of the most sacred possessions of our people: American citizenship.” Reagan was pro-legal immigration, pro-patriotic assimilation and in step with other populist conservatives.
The Republican Party is now unraveling. Sept. 11, 2001, and the war on terrorism stanched a lot of wounds inside the party, but resentment is growing over steel tariffs, prescription drug benefits, a League of Nations mentality, the growth of government and harebrained spending, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, the increasing regulation of political speech in the United States and endemic corruption. On top of all the scandals, it has just come to light that the RNC paid millions in legal bills to defend operative James Tobin, who was convicted with associates in an illegal phone-jamming scheme aimed at preventing New Hampshire Democrats from voting. In doing so, the GOP appears to sanction and institutionalize corruption within the party.
The elites in the GOP have never understood conservatives or Reagan; they’ve found both to be a bit tacky. They have always found the populists’ commitment to values unsettling. To them, adherence to conservative principles was always less important than wealth and power.
Unfortunately, the GOP has lost its motivating ideals. The revolution of 1994 has been killed not by zeal but by a loss of faith in its own principles. The tragedy is not that we are faced with another fight for the soul of the Republican Party but that we have missed an opportunity to bring a new generation of Americans over to our point of view.
All agree that the Democrats are feckless and without a plan or agenda. But most Americans are now presented with a choice between two parties that are both addicted to power — the Democrats to government power and Republicans to corporate and governmental power. Who speaks for Main Street Reaganism?
It was the populists under Reagan, and later under Newt Gingrich, who energized the party, gave voice to a maturing conservative ideology and swept Republicans into power. We would be imprudent and forgetful to disregard this. But it may be too late, because conservatives don’t want to be part of the looming train wreck. They know that this is no longer Ronald Reagan’s party.
Craig Shirley, of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, is the author of “Reagan’s Revolution,” a book about the 1976 campaign, and is now writing “Rendezvous With Destiny” about the successful 1980 campaign. His firm has clients concerned with immigration issues.
LOAD-DATE: April 22, 2006