GOP Advisers: Bush's Stand Hurts Party

“I try not to get snarky about political consultants,” quipped White House Press Secretary Tony Snow the morning after President Bush’s nationally televised address on illegal immigration. Snow was responding to a question from Human Events about the conclusion of several top Republican political consultants that the position outlined by the President spells trouble for Republicans seeking re-election to Congress this fall.

‘Bad News’

Joe Gaylord, a longtime political adviser to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Whit Ayres, pollster and strategist for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.), and Ed Rollins, who served as White House political director for President Reagan, all said the Bush approach to illegal immigration, which calls for a “path to citizenship” for aliens already in the U.S. illegally, was bad news for Republicans in an election year that already looks shaky.

“The Republican base, and particularly the conservative base, would always like George W. Bush to do well,” said Gaylord, whose political relationship with Gingrich has long been likened to Karl Rove’s with Bush. “But I think there’s profound disagreement over whether or not this proposal is amnesty. Although [Bush] says it’s not amnesty, in their heart of hearts, conservatives believe it is and that will cause them not to be supportive.”

Whit Ayres, whose clients include Frist as well as Republican Senators Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Jeff Sessions (Ala.), said: “There is far more pressure throughout the country for passage of a measure that includes stronger border security and employer enforcement than there was for the prescription drug package [in ‘03]. The border is out of control, and the appearance that we have lost our ability to manage illegal immigration is there. If the party that controls the White House and both Houses of Congress appears completely impotent in the face of an overwhelming demand for action, this is definitely a formula for its base to take a walk.”

Ayres pointed to a poll his firm (Ayres, McHenry and Associates) conducted earlier this month among Tennessee Republican voters likely to vote in the state’s August primary. When asked whether they felt the U.S. should erect a fence along the Mexican border to stem illegal immigration, 67% of respondents said yes and 20% said no.

When asked if they would support granting citizenship to those here illegally if they paid a fine and back taxes (a staple of the Bush position), 50% said yes and 41% said no.

Battle Lines

“I think [Bush’s immigration stand] hurts him with the base,” Rollins said without hesitation. “The President made a decision to side with the Senate instead of the House, which reflects his views more. His speech on illegal immigration wasn’t worth postponing the May sweep shows for 20 minutes, and, in taking the position he outlined, the President did nothing to help the House Republicans on the battle lines.”

Rollins said the Republican Party’s conservative base feels “the critical thing is to stop people from crossing the border illegally” and that Bush would please them by “saying he would secure the border and support greater funding for the Border Patrol.” As for the President’s insistence on a “comprehensive” immigration bill that includes a guest-worker program and eventual citizenship, Rollins said “he could have worried about that after the election.”