The man who first invoked “compassionate conservatism” en route to first winning the White House 12 years ago is imploring the Republican Part to do likewise when it comes to the issue of immigration.
Making just his second policy speech since leaving office four years ago, former President George W. Bush made an implicit rebuke of recently failed GOP nominee Mitt Romney in delivering a stirring call for a “benevolent spirit” during immigration reform.
The 43rd president was at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas on Tuesday as the Bush Center held conference on immigration and economic growth.
Bush, a former Texas governor who scored well with Latinos, made no secret of his view on the subject of immigration.
“Not only do immigrants help build our economy,” he said, “they invigorate our soul.”
Romney received just 27 percent of Hispanic vote in his failed bid to unseat President Barack Obama, eight years after Bush totaled 44 percent.
Romney’s name was never specifically mentioned as the conference was an extended argument for the economic benefits of immigration. Bush had backed a similar measure in his second term, only to see it cannibalized by talk-radio conservatives as “amnesty” by people Rush Limbaugh and those politicians who choose to pander to them, including Romney.
Economic growth, the angle taken in arguing for more immigration, was telling. This framing was designed to be accepted by the Republican base, making a pro-business case for immigration rather than extolling the cultural benefits of increased diversity.
The core message of the conference was that America needs more immigrants, not fewer, in the current economic climate. It was bipartisan in tone, framing the issue in economic terms while arguing that America should be competing for the best and the brightest, including offering green cards with graduate-school diplomas – one of the few immigration measures that Senate Republicans and Democrats agree on.
Whether or not there is a Republican audience for such sensible talk is another matter, however. Romney consistently pandered to the worst impulses in his party on this issue – first using it to get to the right of John McCain in 2007, and then Rick Perry in 2011. It was a cynical and short-sighted strategy, contributing to the former Massachusetts governor’s pathetic lack of demographic diversity in this year’s general election.
Bush was consistent in reaching out to the Hispanic community, both as a border-state governor and as president. Xenophobic voices were not tolerated in his administration.
Bush warned the Republican Party as he left office in January 2009 not to become “anti-immigrant.”
“America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time,” he said during his speech. “As our nation debates the proper course of action relating to immigration, I hope we do so with a benevolent spirit and keep in mind the spirit of immigrants.”
Comprehensive immigration reform will likely be on the docket next year, meaning the GOP has a choice to make as for which direction the party should go.
Bush said immigrants come with “new skills and new ideas” and “fill a critical gap in our labor market.”