By Columnist Dick Morris
As an immigration reform bill makes its way through Congress, perceptions in the Latino community are crucial. Right now, the image they see is Democrats forcefully fighting for reform while Republicans are, at best, sullenly accepting it. If this image is locked into place at the conclusion of the legislative debate, it will do incalculable harm to Republican prospects in the indefinite future.
Remember how blacks became Democrats — until the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, they were Republicans. Dwight Eisenhower was the first president to pass legislation in this field; as vice president, Richard Nixon protected it from crippling Democratic amendments supported by then-Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. It was only after Barry Goldwater led the opposition to the bill and a Southern Democrat, Lyndon B. Johnson, jammed it through that the black vote shifted to the Democrats for at least the ensuing 50 years.
The key now is Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). If he steps up and asserts ownership of the immigration reform legislation, he can change the partisan dynamic on this issue. The ball, clearly, is in his court. It is he — not the Democrats — who holds the fate of the bill in his hands. If the bill passes, it will pass because Republicans in the House support it and are willing to defy the potential backlash from the right.
How unfortunate it would be if Boehner did all the heavy lifting and President Obama got all the credit for it.
Boehner needs to do what he rarely does: make a lot of noise and vocally support the immigration legislation. Normally, his style — like that of many legislative leaders — is to take a back seat and let his members get the credit for legislation. But now he must be more like Newt Gingrich and emerge as the spokesman for his party’s position and accomplishments. He must embody the change that is taking place in the Republican Party, an evolution that makes it far more Hispanic-friendly and open to immigration of all types.
And the Republican base is now wide open to supporting an immigration reform bill. Recent surveys by John McLaughlin & Associates — funded and promoted by California Republican activist John Jordan — reveal up to 65 percent support for immigration reform among likely Republican voters, with 75 percent support for the Rubio bill in the Senate after its provisions are explained in detail. Republicans understand — at the grassroots level — that Obama is in the White House for four more years in large part because of GOP opposition to immigration reform.
The action on immigration reform now shifts to the Republican Party. We will watch the drama as Boehner fights to bring his party along to support the bill. The Democrats will be a sideshow; the real action will be on the right as GOP leadership moves this bill forward.
Polls show there is no opposition among Latinos to two key elements that conservative Republicans need to back the bill: more aggressive border policing and making undocumented immigrants go to the back of the line to get citizenship. But the Hispanic community will not accept a bill that does not give those who are here now immediate, protected, legal status and the right to work here, and that includes an eventual path to citizenship. Neither of these four crucial elements are incompatible with the others. They can all work in unison to lift this issue from our national agenda and make it the law of the land.
The question is, how will it be done? Will this legislation be seen as an Obama initiative to which Republicans, brow-beaten by the last election grudgingly assent or will it be a symbol of the transformation and evolution of the party on this issue?
Boehner, who is historically a work horse and not a show horse, holds the key. He needs to speak up!