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Turn That GOP Elephant Into a “Pander” Bear – Amnesty, Marriage and the Republicans’ Problem
by W. James Antle III
29 December 2003

How many elections can Republicans go on winning when they seem more concerned about avoiding criticism from those who oppose them than delivering for their most loyal voters?


It’s understandable, if not entirely forgivable, when putative conservatives abandon their principles to embrace a program that will redistribute income to their supporters and prove politically popular.  Case in point is the new prescription drug benefit.  It was highly irresponsible of President Bush and the GOP Congress to create the biggest new entitlement in 40 years and tack it on to the Medicare program, which is already in a precarious fiscal position.  But in the short term, the move is likely to pay political dividends: it fulfilled a campaign promise from 2000, gave benefits to a great many reliable Republican voters and neutralized the Democratic advantage on key issue for a potent voting bloc.

What is less easy to understand is why conservative politicians turn their backs on their strongest supporters to curry favor with their opponents, even when this puts them at odds with an absolute majority of voters.  Even if you take the most cynical method of practicing politics, holding office to reward your friends and punish your enemies, it makes no sense to ignore your base in order to pander to those who will never vote for you.  Yet this is precisely how too many Republicans operate.  Stupid Party, indeed.

Exhibit A: The Christmas Eve leak to the Washington Post about the Bush administration’s plan to spread its Yuletide cheer to millions of illegal immigrants in 2004.  The unnamed Republican officials quoted in the article detail how “immigration reform” will be a critical part of the president’s agenda and reelection strategy.

Of course, by “immigration reform” they mean precisely the opposite of real reform and what most Americans want – manageable levels of legal immigration plus secure borders that are no longer routinely penetrated by illegal immigrants.  What the Bush administration has in store for us is an amnesty for at least some illegal aliens and a continuation of the post-1965 mass immigration.

The idea is that Hispanics will flock toward the GOP if the Bush administration “legalizes” Mexican illegals and otherwise supports porous borders.  But the Hispanics most likely to benefit from such proposals are the least likely to vote Republican.  The Hispanics who could be persuaded to vote Republican are most likely to have been born in this country or to have obeyed the laws while entering.  These voters will be turned off by the idea that “outreach” to them requires tolerating the violation of immigration laws, while the beneficiaries of even a targeted amnesty will in all probability vote heavily Democratic.  On top of all this, the GOP base steadfastly opposes these kinds of policies. 

The sources for the article maintain that the President opposes a “blanket amnesty” and that the administration wanted to be careful to avoid penalizing immigrants who obeyed the law while rewarding those who broke them.  But the very act of passing any amnesty is to reward those who failed to heed existing immigration laws and to encourage more illegal immigration.  Although likely a concoction of Karl Rove, this trial balloon does not possess a single characteristic of smart politics: It will import new Democratic voters while defying the GOP base, reward illegal aliens in the name of reaching out to legal immigrants and U.S. citizens and increase downward pressure on wages just as the economy is beginning to experience growth rapid enough to neutralize it as an issue for Democratic presidential candidates.

Then there is the little matter of trying to out-pander the Democrats.  When the Bush administration last floated the idea of amnesty for some illegal Mexican workers, then House Democratic leader (and current presidential candidate) Richard Gephardt responded with a broader amnesty program that non-Mexicans among the 8 to 12 million illegals would also be eligible for.  If the GOP gets in a bidding war with the Democrats on this issue, surely they – and America –will lose.

Nor is this the only issue where outreach to people who will not vote Republican seems to take precedence over the wishes of the party’s most loyal supporters.  Take for example the issue of marriage.  A bare majority of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided to discard the traditional definition of marriage as some kind of arbitrary construct and replace it with another arbitrary construct of their own imaginations.  Unlike prior rulings in Hawaii and Alaska, this does not lend itself easily to democratic correction, and unlike the ruling in Vermont, it does not appear to give the legislature as much leeway to get around redefining marriage as such.  This is precisely what astute cultural conservatives have warned would happen for quite some time: Same-sex marriage proponents would use the judiciary to impose their will on a single state and then try to bring it national via the Full Faith and Credit clause of the U.S. Constitution.  Efforts to circumvent this through such legislation as the Defense of Marriage Act, passed in 1996 and signed into law (ironically) by Bill Clinton, would have to reckon with a Supreme Court that has ruled in Romer vs. Evans and Lawrence vs. Texas that failure to give gay-rights activists what they want constitutes an irrational animus.

It appears now that the only way around it is a federal marriage amendment.  Yet most Republicans don’t want anything to do with the issue.  The White House has not yet taken an unequivocal stand.  But even conservative commentators and intellectuals are nowhere to be found in advocating it.  Instead, they would rather dicker about the federalist principles they are content to ignore when faced with myriad examples of federal government growth.  

The way Republicans are running from the federal marriage amendment and conservative pundits are conceding defeat in the same-sex marriage debate, you would think that the idea was overwhelmingly unpopular.  But a December 21 New York Times/CBS poll found that 55 percent of Americans would support such an amendment.  In this case, elite opinion appears to be more decisive than public opinion.  Do the Republicans really think their timidity will win them any new votes or fire up the social conservatives who so often provide them with their margin of victory?

Although November 2004 is a long way away, things are shaping up well for President Bush and the Republicans in the upcoming elections.  Given the nature of the opposition, this is a good thing.  But how many elections can Republicans go on winning when they seem more concerned about avoiding criticism from those who oppose them than delivering for their most loyal voters?  During the 1992 campaign, the late Paul Tsongas, a good and decent if often mistaken Democrat, mocked Bill Clinton as a “pander bear.” But at least Clinton was smart enough to get votes in exchange for his pandering.

W. James Antle III is a Senior Editor for EnterStageRight.com and a primary columnist for IntellectualConservative.com. He is a freelance writer from Boston, Massachussetts.

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