There is nothing wrong with a former president of the United States, and former leader of a great party, coming forward to speak out on a pressing national question. In fact it’s part of a former president’s job to be serious in this way, and if he doesn’t do it every day but holds his fire for potentially key moments it can be helpful.
Nothing George W. Bush said yesterday in Dallas did any harm. He spoke earnestly and in broad support of immigration, and in so doing reminded everyone that there are many flavors of Republican, and many views within the party. His remarks were portrayed, as he surely knew they would be, as chiding of his party at a moment when it is low and probably needs more inspiring than rebuking.
Which reminds us of what went wrong last time.
In 2006, when he was president, Mr. Bush brought forward what he called comprehensive immigration reform, a huge bill that, in its sprawl, managed to be not fully coherent, deeply unaware of the moment, and thoroughly anxiety producing. When the president was opposed—Republicans on the ground felt under siege from what was essentially an open border, one Mr. Bush’s administration had failed to make progress in controlling—he was surprised. His White House then took an unfortunate tack and turned on the party. Opponents of Mr. Bush’s bill, to hear him and his supporters tell it, didn’t have a point, or points, and they weren’t quite worthy of persuasion or appeals to reason. They would instead be accused of moral failings, especially bigotry.
President Bush himself suggested opponents of his bill were unpatriotic: “They don’t want what’s right for America.” His ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said, “We’re gonna tell the bigots to shut up.” The homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, suggested opponents would prefer illegal immigrants be killed; Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez accused those opposing the bill of wanting “mass deportation,” and former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson said those who oppose the bill were “anti-immigrant” and suggested they suffered from “rage” and “national chauvinism.”
It was morally smug and snotty and did not generate support. Instead it solidified opposition, and further broke a party already fracturing from the wars and high spending.
A note to Republicans: Don’t let that happen again.
The coming immigration debate should be marked by reason and persuasion, not breast beating and manipulation. That’s how you bring Republicans along.
One of the biggest things often missing in politics? Tact. Simple tact.
This is one of many reasons it would be good to see more Republican women rise and speak for the party: because they still have more of it than the men.