GOP vs. GOP on Borders

By David S. Broder
Thursday, June 15, 2006

Out of the past and into the current controversy dividing the Republican Party came former California governor Pete Wilson, charging into Washington this week to argue that he had been right all along in trying to slam the door on illegal

immigration.

Far from dooming Republicans to a series of defeats in the most populous state, Wilson argued, his championing in 1994 of Proposition 187, denying health care and educational services to illegal immigrants and their children, anticipated the kind of hard-line policy many Republicans endorsed this year.

The old Marine, as unyielding now at 72 as he was during his eight years as governor, may not be the spokesman the embattled House Republicans would choose for their fight with the White House and the Senate over the immigration reform bill now headed for conference committee. Wilson is blamed by many Republicans, including those around President Bush, for so alienating the growing Hispanic vote in California that the state's hoard of electoral votes has moved permanently into the Democratic column.

But Wilson, a former senator, rejected that charge at a Hudson Institute talk in Washington. And, despite being a Bush appointee (to the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory panel), he called on his former colleagues to resist White House pressure on the House and Senate to pass a compromise bill that preserves elements of the president's more generous approach and that includes a path to citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants already here. He said the only reason the Senate voted for a more generous bill was that many senators had been "intimidated."

Wilson said House Republicans are right in insisting that the Mexican border be closed before any thought is given to a guest worker program or anything resembling amnesty. That was also the message the winner of last week's House special election in the San Diego area, Republican Brian Bilbray, said voters were sending when they chose him.

Build a wall the entire 2,000-mile length of the border, and do it first, Wilson said, or else "you'll have 20 million, 35 million, 50 million" illegal immigrants in the country.

Wilson, a former mayor of San Diego, offered a revisionist history of California politics in defending his position. The 1994 campaign ad for which he became famous -- a nighttime shot of shadowy figures sneaking across the border, while the announcer intoned, "They keep coming" -- was falsely depicted in the media, he said, as an anti-immigrant message. It was aimed strictly at illegal immigrants, Wilson said, and in defense of California

taxpayers.

Did it cost Republicans California? Many have said so, noting that Democrats have won every presidential race, every Senate contest and every regular election for governor since Prop. 187 passed.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's victory in the 2003 recall election broke that spell, Wilson said, and the blame for the earlier defeats can be assigned to the men who were "nice guys but not good candidates." As for the presidential races, he said Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in his two campaigns really didn't try hard enough to get California.

That's his story, and he's sticking to it. But Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), one of the principal sponsors of the Senate bill, isn't buying any of it. "He really misreads this," Hagel told me. "The intimidation was all coming from the other side," in the form of e-mails and phone calls denouncing the 23 Republicans who, like Hagel, voted for the Senate bill.

Hagel said the 2,000-mile fence "is just not practical" and the "20 million, 35 million, 50 million" illegal immigrants flooding in are numbers Wilson pulled out of the air. And Wilson's interpretation of California political history is equally unpersuasive. "California has become a wasteland for Republicans," Hagel said, "with not one elected official except the governor, who got there by accident. And you can't blame that all on candidates. Parties get a reputation from the policies they support."

Hagel made one other point: Those who, like Wilson, want only a border-closing bill offer no policy for dealing with "the 11 million illegals living in our country or their 3 million legal children. Is the party of Abraham Lincoln going to allow a permanent second class of people waiting to be citizens?"

The next few months of House-Senate negotiation will determine whether Pete Wilson and Brian Bilbray or Chuck Hagel and George Bush speak for the Republican

Party.

davidbroder@washpost.com


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