Say ‘hooray’ for George W. Bush

Published 10:05 am Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A novel I’m currently reading asks the question, “How do you weigh all the sides of someone?” I thought of that line yesterday, while weighing the upside of George W. Bush.

The former president has been irrevocably tarred by his farce in Iraq, his fecklessness during Katrina, and his purblind indulgence of the housing bubble that helped bust the economy.

But the guy had a good side, too.

Email newsletter signup

He was stubbornly consistent in his support for path-to-citizenship immigration reform – and, as evidenced by his Sunday appearance on ABC News, he still is. Admirably so.

As the Senate’s historic bipartisan bill sits in the Republican House (the right-wing chamber where sanity goes to die), Bush is making the case for common sense. He’s due to hit the issue again in a speech on Wednesday.

His willingness to go public is unusual — he has been reticent about policy and politics since leaving office — but he has been passionate about immigration reform since the late ‘90s. Hence his Sunday TV remarks, which were clearly aimed at the usual conservative suspects:

“I think it’s very important to fix a broken system, to treat people with respect. And have confidence in our capacity to assimilate people… good policy is good politics, as far as I’m concerned.”

It doesn’t take a genius to decode Bush’s comments.

As he rightly pointed out, path-to-citizenship reform is seriously imperiled because too many House Republicans refuse to treat undocumented people with respect, or to exude confidence in America’s capacity to assimilate them – or to recognize that a reform policy would benefit the GOP politically.

Good policy is indeed good politics; in translation, Bush was warning the GOP that hostile policy is suicidal politics. And he knows about that, from painful experience.

When he won re-election in 2004, he drew roughly 44 percent of Hispanic voters, a high-water mark for a Republican; as his strategy guru, Karl Rove, used to say, “You cannot ignore the aspirations of the fastest-growing minority in America.”

Bush identified immigration reform as a top priority in his second term. In 2006 and 2007, he championed a path to citizenship (coupled, as now, with beefed-up border security) — but he got nowhere. He was pummeled on the conservative talk shows, and blocked by conservative lawmakers in his own party.

“What’s right for America”

Then he got mad. During a May 2007 speech in Pennsylvania, he lashed out at the Republican base: “If you want to kill the bill, if you don’t want to do what’s right for America…if you want to scare the American people, what you say is, ‘This is an amnesty bill.’ It’s not an amnesty bill. That’s empty political rhetoric trying to frighten our fellow citizens… Will we be a welcoming place, a place of law that renews our spirit by giving people a chance to succeed?”

His 2007 remarks fell on deaf ears. Immigration reform died on the Senate floor (thanks to the usual filibuster), and, sure enough, Republicans were subsequently waxed by the Hispanic electorate. Those voters are citizens, not undocumented immigrants, but they tend to view attacks on “illegals” as a blanket insult on their ethnicity.

John McCain won just 31 percent of Hispanics in 2008, and last year Mitt “Self-Deport” Romney drew 27 percent, losing as many as four erstwhile swing states (Colorado, Nevada, Florida, and New Mexico) thanks to an energized Hispanic turnout.

Bush has been proven right. Fear-mongering turns voters off; an optimistic message (“will we be a welcoming place … giving people a chance to succeed?”) is far more likely to turn them on.

But it’s questionable today whether the party’s right flank cares a whit for anything Bush says. In retirement, he’s basically a pariah because he ran up huge budget deficits during his tenure (House conservatives aided and abetted him, but they seem to have forgotten that), and because Iraq sank the party at the polls in ‘06 and ‘08 (they voted for his war, but they seem to have forgotten that as well).

And on the immigration issue, they’ve long dismissed him as a bleeding-heart liberal.

So three cheers for Dubya. He’s trying to save the Republican Party from itself, and it won’t be his fault if the House partisans and the hostile base stay deaf to his advice.


Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia ( and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at