Former president George W. Bush, who enjoyed healthy support among Latinos during his time in office, has broken a virtual five-year silence in national politics by calling on fellow Republicans to embrace immigration reform at a time when conservatives are rebelling against the idea.
The question is: Is anyone listening?
Judging from the immigration debate now roiling the House, probably not. Although Bush’s public approval ratings are on the rise, he is a fast-fading memory on Capitol Hill, where more than half of the 234 House Republicans arrived on the scene after he departed.
Rep. Raúl R. Labrador (R-Idaho), who last month dropped out of bipartisan talks to develop a comprehensive House immigration bill, said Bush’s views would have little impact.
“Anybody has to take an ex-president’s word seriously, but he’s just another voice on this issue. He’s not going to be the definitive voice,” Labrador said in an interview.
He added that House lawmakers “are all independent actors here. We’re not little kids waiting for someone to tell us how to vote and act.”
Bush has twice in the past two weeks delivered a gentle but clear message that his party should embrace an overhaul of border control laws for the good of the nation, without fear of recriminations from the party’s conservative base. Bush failed to persuade Congress to pass a similar reform package in 2007 — a setback that he has called one of his biggest disappointments as president.
“I do hope there is a positive resolution to the debate,” Bush said Wednesday at a naturalization ceremony for 20 people from 12 countries at his presidential library in Dallas. “And I hope during the debate that we keep a benevolent spirit in mind, and we understand the contributions immigrants make to our country. . . . At its core, immigration is a sign of a confident and successful nation.”
The 43rd president’s political reemergence, after choosing to remain out of the spotlight since leaving office in 2009, serves as a stark reminder of the political challenges facing the current GOP, whose support among Latino voters has plummeted since Bush won an estimated 44 percent of their vote in 2004. Eight years later, exit polls showed Republican nominee Mitt Romney winning just 29 percent of the fast-growing Latino electorate, leading to a round of anguished self-examination about the party’s future.
The Senate overwhelmingly approved a bipartisan bill last month that includes a path to citizenship for up to 11 million illegal immigrants. But House leaders said after a House GOP conference meeting Wednesday that they will not hold a vote on the Senate legislation, opting instead for a series of smaller bills that, so far, do not include a path to citizenship.
A spokesman for Bush said the timing of his Wednesday remarks was purely coincidental, as the ceremony was planned months ago, and that he is not planning any similar events in the near future. His brother, former Florida governor and potential 2016 presidential candidate Jeb Bush (R), has been supporting immigration reform in a book and public speaking tour.
George W. Bush’s return to the national stage comes at a critical time for President Obama, who has made immigration reform his top second-term priority. After playing a supportive role during Senate negotiations, Obama is considering ramping up public pressure on the House through trips to key states to emphasize the benefits. On Wednesday, the White House released a report making an economic case for legalizing undocumented workers.
In 2007, during the last major attempt at immigration reform, a bipartisan Senate proposal supported by Bush failed to advance from that chamber. Many immigration supporters say Bush’s sway was limited by his declining popularity near the end of his tenure.
“We just didn’t have the time and influence to bring the party along,” Nicolle Wallace, Bush’s former communications director, said in an interview Wednesday.
Bush’s approval ratings have risen since leaving office — from 35 percent in 2009 to 49 percent this spring — as he settles into a role as an elder statesman. Several Republican lawmakers acknowledged this week that Bush’s experience in the immigration debate and ability to attract Hispanic support gives him special credibility on the issue.
But some said privately that they wish Bush had remained more active in GOP politics, as a fundraiser or campaign surrogate, which might have given him more clout on policy issues.
“I don’t think it hurts to have him coming out, but I’m not so sure how much it helps,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who has not been in touch with Bush since 2008.
Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) said he wouldn’t be too concerned with the former president’s comments on immigration. But he added that “as a Republican who drew a high percentage of the Hispanic vote, there’s some lessons to be learned, and I think people would be interested in his point of view.”
One former Bush administration official who remains involved in the immigration policy debate on Capitol Hill said the former president “probably will not move the needle, other than the way in which he talks about it reminds people about why the issue is important and why there needs to be progress.”
Former Bush advisers said his position on immigration is a principled stance gained from his experience as a border governor in Texas from 1995 to 2000.
Wallace said the fact that her former boss has not spoken out on any other legislation since leaving office shows how passionate he is about immigration reform. She pointed to his Oval Office address to the country in May 2006.
“We are a nation of laws, and we must enforce our laws. We are also a nation of immigrants, and we must uphold that tradition, which has strengthened our country in so many ways,” Bush said at the time. “These are not contradictory goals.”
Wallace acknowledged that Bush is unlikely, by himself, to advance the cause in the Republican House. In recent weeks, pushback from constituents and conservative talk-radio hosts has made many House Republicans nervous about embracing a sweeping reform bill.
Former Bush administration Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who now heads a political action committee called Republicans for Immigration Reform, said Bush’s recent statements should be “a very powerful reminder to people that here is a Republican president who understands the importance of immigration.”
He added, “Surely the president’s voice has sway throughout the country and hopefully will make members of the House think twice about what they’re going to do.”