President John F. Kennedy was fond of quoting the philosopher George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Indeed, Santayana's advice makes so much sense you'd think nobody could ever ignore it. Yet that's exactly what Speaker John Boehner's doing today by refusing to allow a vote on immigration reform.
I must admit, I watch today's Republican intransigence on immigration with a certain amusement, because I've seen this movie before. In California. For me, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, it's "deja vu, all over again." Twenty years ago, it was hard convincing much of the Latino community to get involved in politics. God knows, Democrats tried. I personally ran a voter registration drive in East Los Angeles. But residents distrusted government so much, it was hard getting them to register to vote, let alone show up at the polls. At the same time, Democrats secretly feared that if Latinos ever did register to vote – because most of them were Catholic, social conservatives, pro-family and pro-small business – they'd sign up as Republicans.
Then came 1994. I was California Democratic state chairman when Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, running for re-election, endorsed Proposition 187, an anti-immigrant ballot initiative that banned the state from providing health care, public education or other social services to immigrants in California illegally. In so doing, he did what we had failed to do: He woke up the "sleeping giant." Angry at what they considered Wilson's direct war on the Hispanic community, millions of Latinos turned out to register to vote – not as Republicans, after all, but as Democrats!
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And look what happened. No Republican presidential candidate has won the Golden State since. Today, every California statewide officer is a Democrat, and Democrats maintain a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature. In Congress, Democrats hold 38 out of 53 seats in the California congressional delegation, including nine Hispanic members. Every day, California Democrats get down on their knees and say, "Thank you, Pete Wilson!"
Now, here's the funny part. Surely, having been stung once, Republicans would learn their lesson. Nope. They're making the same mistake today, on the national level. Yes, there are some isolated Republicans – like George W. Bush or his brother Jeb – who understand the importance of immigration reform. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., warned that if Republicans don't endorse comprehensive reform they can forget about ever winning the White House again. And the Republican National Committee's own "autopsy" report on the 2012 election recommended: "We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party's appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only."
But wiser voices in the GOP are drowned out today by the shrill cries of tea party extremists, who believe the only good Latino is one on a bus back to Mexico. Rather than reaching out to help thousands of children – children! – crossing the border to flee violence in their home countries, conservatives like Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, have denounced them as a dangerous mob of predators, gang members and carriers of every possible disease, including the bubonic plague. And, sadly, those extremists are the only ones John Boehner is listening to.
Opposition to any immigration reform, even President Obama's request for supplemental funds to deal with the humanitarian crisis at the border, might placate tea party activists in the short term, but it's bound to hurt the Republican Party in the long term. In fact, it already has. Among the Latino community, support for the Republican Party has dropped from a high of 44 percent for George W. Bush in 2004, to 31 percent for John McCain in 2008, to an embarrassing 27 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012. Now John Boehner, ignoring the lessons learned in California in 1994, seems determined to drive it even lower.
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On public policy issues, there's often a big difference between the right thing to do and the politically smart thing to do. For years, Democrats knew that supporting same-sex marriage was the right thing to do, but they were afraid it would hurt them politically.
But immigration reform's an exception. Passing comprehensive reform is both the right thing to do and the politically smart thing to do. Sadly, Republicans insist on doing neither. They're making the same dumb mistake they made in 1994. That may be good for Democrats, but it's bad for the Republican Party – and it's bad for the nation.