Democrats, road-testing their midterm election message, have been warning lately that the Republicans want to bring back the policies of George W. Bush. But that claim is not accurate, given the fact that the current Republican crowd apparently views George W. Bush as a flaming liberal who was soft on immigration.
In all his years as president, and to his credit, Bush never trashed the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which since 1868 has declared that all babies born on U.S. soil are automatically citizens. He never proposed that the birthright citizenship language be ripped out. He never smeared immigrant women as opportunists who simply wanted to "drop a baby" in America for the supposedly sole purpose of creating an American citizen. He never sought to indulge the denizens of nutcase nation by whipping up fears about so-called hordes of "anchor babies."
On the contrary, Bush accepted the birthright language as a settled American tradition; indeed, the amendment itself stands as a singular achievement of the early Republican party, and the current GOP still lists it, on its website, as a major party "accomplishment." Bush's aim was not to disenfranchise babies. Rather, his broad aim was to welcome immigrants to the fold; as he remarked in a January '04 speech, "every generation of immigrants has reaffirmed our ability to assimilate newcomers, which is one of the defining strengths of America."
Unfortunately, one of our defining flaws - now on display, courtesy of the post-Bush GOP - is that we sometimes demonize immigrants. It's tempting to dismiss the current hysteria as merely the latest manifestation of the August syndrome, by which we seem to get progressively stupider with each blast of humidity. (This month, it's "anchor babies." Last August, it was "Nazi" health reform.) But the truth is, the right-wing impulse to tamper with the Constitution and remove the birthright language has been marinating for a long time. It once was the province of the party fringe. Now it has migrated to the party mainstream.
Prominent GOP figures in the Senate and House want to hold hearings on the issue, with the goal of essentially trashing the GOP's own historic accomplishment. John Boehner said this weekend, "I think it's worth considering." Former immigration reform champion John McCain, selling his soul yet again as his Arizona GOP primary draws near, says he's fine with hearings. And his faithful sidekick, Lindsey Graham, has renounced his own reformist track record with this gem: "People come here to have babies. They come here to drop a child. It's called 'drop and leave.'"
Graham's demagoguery is so extreme that even the prominent anti-immigrant activist Mark Kirkorian can't stomach it. As Kirkorian told a conservative website the other day, "there's no evidence suggesting that this 'drop and leave' stuff is true...it's just an assertion, at this point. My own sense is that most illegal alien women who have kids here didn't come for that purpose; they came for jobs or to join relatives...There are no doubt some people who dash across the border illegally to have kids, but they just don't amount to a large share of the problem. Nor does the problem of 'birth tourism' warrant a change in the Constitution."
That last remark is crucial. Republicans have always insisted that they are "strict constructionists" who respect the literal language in America's guiding document - yet now they are agitating to remove the literal language that states unequivocally: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside."
Republicans also claim to respect judicial precedent - yet now they are dismissing the thrust of two Supreme Court decisions that basically underpin the 14th Amendment birthright provision. In 1898, the high court ruled that Wong Kim Ark, born on U.S. soil, was automatically a citizen - even though his Chinese parents were not citizens and even though the parents had in fact returned to live in China. The court traced the birthright principle back to English common law, and stated in a footnote that children born here are citizens even if the parents' entry was "unlawful."
And nearly a century later, in a 1982 immigration case, the high court majority crafted a broad endorsement of the amendment as written. The court ruled that "the 14th Amendment extends to everyone, citizen or stranger," even if "a person's initial entry into a state, or into the United States, was unlawful."
Yet none of this matters to the post-Bush GOP, which helps explain why the Bush Republicans seem so appalled. Over the weekend, former chief Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson assailed the current Republican leaders for endorsing "viciousness and prejudice on a grand scale." In a blog post, he pointed out that "revoking birthright citizenship would turn hundreds of thousands of infants into 'criminals,'" and he singled out Graham and McCain for their behavior: "Politicians sometimes come (to Washington) to drop their deepest convictions. It's called self-serving cynicism...Their reputations may never fully recover."
Actually, this attack on the birthright citizenship is just tactical rhetoric. To change the constitutional language, the post-Bush GOP would need to sway two-thirds of the Senate and three-fourths of the state legislators. That's not gonna happen, as these Republicans well know. They're focused solely on the prospects for short-term political gain. If they can further stoke the base emotions of their conservative base - which is older and whiter than the general electorate - then the base will be even more enthused about the November midterms.
Machiavelli would surely approve. Yet it speaks volumes about the post-Bush GOP that Karl Rove, subbing yesterday on the air for Rush Limbaugh, said nary a word about the anti-birthright frenzy. A decade ago, while working as Bush's political maestro, Rove dreamed of a permanent Republican majority that would welcome people of color, especially Hispanic immigrants. He knows that the long-term prospects of a pluralistic GOP are nil if the party chooses to dis the Constitution and rant about "anchor babies." Which is why, yesterday, he chose not to feed the frenzy.
So there you have it: Today's GOP is to the right of Karl Rove. Ponder that one.