Chris Cillizza: Bush ahead of his time on immigration

02/01/2013 4:27 PM

02/01/2013 4:27 PM

George W. Bush was president of the United States less than five years ago. You’d never know it by listening to Republican politicians or talking with GOP party strategists – all of whom seem perfectly willing to simply erase Bush from their collective memory.

But erasing Bush’s memory entirely overlooks the fact that in one very important way the 43rd president of the United States was well ahead of his time. Bush was an early advocate within the GOP for increasing the party’s outreach to the Hispanic community, and had his party followed where their president was trying to lead, it might not find itself faced with such a daunting political challenge in courting that bloc of voters today.

Bush came up in politics in Texas, where even 15 years ago Latinos were transforming the state and its electorate. He – and his senior team, including the likes of Karl Rove – understood the looming (and growing) political power of Hispanics innately and worked very aggressively during his 2000 and 2004 campaigns to court Latinos.

Bush won 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000 and 43 percent four years later, a high-water mark for a Republican presidential nominee since exit polling began in 1972.

Repeatedly during his presidency, Bush tried to reform the immigration system in hopes of proving to Hispanics that they could find a home in the GOP. In 2004 and 2007 Bush attempted to push for changes on immigration, and both times he was foiled by opposition from his party’s conservative wing.

Had Republicans – led by Bush – found a way to get behind even some sort of small reform of the immigration system back in 2004 or 2007, it’s uniquely possible that they might find themselves in a very different position when it comes to solving their Hispanic problem.

To be clear, simply following Bush’s lead on immigration reform would not have been a panacea for the Republican Party. The likes of former Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo and current Iowa Rep. Steve King would still have been around and taking positions that would threaten to erase any gains Bush might have made.

But what’s clear is this: In the 2004 election, Bush demonstrated that a Republican candidate could compete for the Hispanic vote. And had Bush been able to deliver a policy solution or two on immigration that appealed to Hispanics, the party’s path with this increasingly crucial voting bloc might have been very different and far less rocky.

Republicans would do well then to remember that while Bush hurt the party politically in a variety of ways, he also tried to help it. They chose not to listen.

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