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Joe Conason: Not Listening — What Republicans Could Learn from G.W. Bush

During most of the Obama presidency, former President George W. Bush has maintained a decorous silence. Keeping quiet may not always have been easy for Bush, watching his successor repudiate and unwind his legacy, from Iraq to Afghanistan and beyond, but his discretion was wise under the circumstances. Suddenly, however, he is speaking out to urge a “positive resolution” to the debate over immigration reform — and the time to listen to him has surely arrived.

In Decision Points, his memoir published in 2010, Bush explains how he came to understand that a “pathway to citizenship” had to be created for many if not all of the 12 million undocumented workers living in the United States, and their families.

After 9/11, he recalls, his administration spent an additional $75 billion on border security, including new surveillance technology, additional detention facilities and thousands more border patrol agents.

“I hoped our focus on security would reassure the American people that we were serious about stopping illegal immigrants from entering the country,” he recalls. “But defensive measures alone would not solve the problem. America’s economy was a magnet for the poor and the hopeful. The longest and tallest fence in the world would not stop those determined to provide for their families.”

In May 2006, during the first primetime televised presidential address on immigration, Bush proposed a temporary worker program, combined with stricter workplace enforcement and still thousands more border patrol agents. More to the point, despite his earlier opposition to any form of “amnesty,” he declared his support for a clear process by which responsible, longtime residents who lacked documents might become taxpaying, voting, fully accepted American citizens. In a foretaste of things to come, Bush got a bill through the Senate, which then stalled in the House.

Following the 2006 midterm election, when voters returned a Democratic majority in the House, Bush reached out to Sen. Ted Kennedy to try again on immigration, along with Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain. Their reform bill included all the important elements of the previous legislation, including “a tough but fair path to citizenship for law-abiding immigrants who had been in America for a number of years.”

Ultimately, the Kennedy-McCain effort died, too, amid a furious right-wing radio barrage Bush describes as a toxic “blend of isolationism, protectionism and nativism.” When a cloture vote failed, “senators went home and listened to angry constituents stirred up by the loud voices on radio and TV. By the time they came back to Washington, immigration reform was dead.”

Today that same description applies to the troglodyte Republicans in the House, who ought to pay close attention to the leader they once lionized but instead heed bad advice from Bill Kristol and Rush Limbaugh. The learning process that inspired Bush to promote reform when he was president — and still motivates him today — would benefit them, their party and the nation. The salient fact is that he once attracted nearly 45 percent of the Latino vote, while their candidate last year got only 29 percent, as their prospects of national success continue to diminish.

Even so, the chances of enlightenment in the rightward precincts of Capitol Hill seem vanishingly small at the moment, and meaningful immigration reform is almost certain to stall yet again. Sadly, those most in need of instruction by Bush are incapable of hearing him as they make demagogic noise. The rest of us listen to the man we mocked, realizing that he is now a lonely voice of sanity in a Republican Party that has descended steeply since he left office.

And it will not bottom out, because there is no bottom.

Joe Conason is editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. Click here to contact him, follow him on Twitter: @JConason, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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