President Bush does not admit mistakes very often, so it’s worth paying attention when he does. And as he leaves office, Bush has been emphasizing two critical missteps on the subject of immigration.
Mistake one, he told his final news conference, was not using the political capital he earned during the 2004 re-election campaign to push immediately for immigration reform. Instead, he focused on a futile effort to rework Social Society, and by the time he got to immigration in 2007, he had squandered his capital and lost his influence.
Mistake two was the cynical decision by conservative Republicans to oppose immigration reform as a way of energizing their base supporters. The result was to drive Hispanic voters straight into the waiting arms of the Democrats. As the president noted, “The outcome of ... the debate was that some people said, well, Republicans don’t like immigrants. Now that may be fair or unfair, but that’s ... the image that came out.”
Bush has long understood the rising importance of Hispanic voters and won 44 percent of them against John Kerry in 2004. But after the immigration debacle, John McCain – a strong sponsor of reform – slumped to 31 percent. Even more threatening to the GOP: McCain attracted only 19 percent of Hispanics under 30.
There’s a clear lesson here. Barack Obama should place immigration high on his agenda during his first year in office. It makes sense morally and economically, but also politically. White voters dropped from 77 percent of the electorate in 2004 (and 87 percent in 1992) to 74 percent in 2008, and that trend is only going to accelerate. Democrats lost seven of 10 presidential elections before Obama’s victory, and one key to solidifying their new advantage is maximizing their share of the Hispanic vote.
Of course, the economic crisis has to be Obama’s primary focus. And a time of soaring unemployment is not the best moment to talk about adding newcomers to the workforce. Still, the new president, the son of a foreigner himself, will have several chances to enhance the lives of immigrants, legal and illegal, and he should seize them.
The first opportunity will be expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which provides coverage for poor children and pregnant women. Congress is now deciding whether to reverse a 1996 law that bars legal immigrants from qualifying for those benefits during their first five years in this country.
This is a smart and humane idea that would pay for itself. Early immunization and prenatal care keeps moms and their kids out of expensive emergency rooms and holds down health costs. The House bill lifts the ban, but powerful senators are resisting, and Obama should make the repeal an early test of his influence.