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Greg Sargent: Obama pokes GOP’s ‘nativist’ hornet’s nest

Sargent FTWP

Throughout much of 2014, it was painfully obvious that if the GOP didn’t act on immigration reform, the issue would become a big factor in the 2016 GOP presidential primary, perhaps making it harder for Republicans to address the issue – and with it, their problem with Latinos heading into another national election.

In an interview with National Public Radio, President Obama stirred the pot further. He said “nativist” elements within the GOP were holding up action, noting that his recent executive actions on deportations pose a challenge for Republicans who do want to act but don’t want to take on those “nativists.”

“The question then becomes, by me having taken these actions: Does that spur those voices in the Republican Party who I think genuinely believe immigration is good for our country?” Obama said. “Does it spur them to work once again with Democrats and my administration to get a reasonable piece of legislation done? Or does it simply solidify what I do think is a nativist trend in parts of the Republican Party? And if it’s the latter, then probably we’re not going to get much more progress done, and it’ll be a major debate in the next presidential election.”

A new CNN poll illustrates the depth of this divide among Republicans and the degree to which it could loom in the coming GOP presidential primary. The poll finds that among Republicans, Jeb Bush leads all the other hopefuls.

But note the findings on immigration: A plurality of Republicans (35 percent) say they are less likely to vote for Bush because he has supported plans to legalize some undocumented immigrants. And an even larger plurality of Republicans (42 percent) say they are less likely to support him because he declared that undocumented immigrants are driven by an “act of love” that shows concern for their families.

Bush, you may recall, stirred up a big debate among Republicans when he outlandishly suggested that many undocumented immigrants, while undeniably lawbreakers, are in a morally complex situation (they are trying to better their lives and help their families) and just might have something to contribute to American society. This is apparently a liability among a large swath of GOP voters.

It’s worth noting that those saying they are less likely to support Bush still represent a minority of Republicans overall. But as we’ve seen, GOP primary candidates tend to talk to that conservative minority.

Republicans who are unable to support legalization aren’t necessarily nativists. For many, rewarding lawbreakers (even if their plights are morally complex) violates fundamental principles of fairness, precluding acceptance of “amnesty” in any form. But this polling is a reminder that among many Republicans, opposition to legalization of any kind remains in force – the primary obstacle to any kind of reform compromise that both parties might support.

Republicans failed to act because they were unwilling to do the hard policy work of determining whether there are any circumstances under which they can accept legalization. But it’s not clear how long Republicans can avoid grappling with this question.

As Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a supporter of reform that includes legalization, puts it: “We’re a major political party. We’re expected to have a rational approach on these big issues. And on immigration the party as a whole I don’t think has had a very rational approach.”

We can hope a Bush run will force this debate to the fore.

Greg Sargent writes for the Washington Post.