On the question of immigration, the Republican Party is at a crossroads.
The party could take the Jeb Bush approach. “The way I look at this,” Bush said last year, “is someone who comes to our country because they couldn’t come legally, they come to our country because their families — the dad who loved their children — was worried that their children didn’t have food on the table. … Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love.”
Or the party could imitate Donald Trump, who exploded into the presidential race with these inflammatory words: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. …” He then added: “And some, I assume, are good people.”
We’ve seen this divide between compassion and hostility before.
In 1994, two future GOP presidential hopefuls, Pete Wilson of California and George W. Bush of Texas, formed near-opposite relationships with the Latino community. Their fates, and the fates of their state parties, should tell the national GOP everything it needs to know about how best to handle immigration.
Twenty-one years ago, California was a swing state that leaned GOP. It had voted Republican in six of the last seven presidential elections and sent two of the last six presidents, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, to the White House. Wilson’s 1994 re-election marked the fourth straight time the GOP won the governor’s mansion.
Now California is overwhelmingly Democratic. What happened? Among other factors, Wilson made the unfortunate decision to support Proposition 187.
The so-called Save Our State, or SOS, initiative prohibited immigrants in the U.S. illegally from using health care and public education in California, effectively denying these services to hundreds of thousands of their children. Anti-immigrant activists spun divisive slogans like “Deport Them All” and “Send Them Home,” while Wilson and the California Republican Party strongly endorsed Proposition 187. Those who stood on the other side were called traitors. When the co-author of Proposition 187 said at a rally that “you are the posse, and SOS is the rope,” the entanglement of GOP support for 187 with racially intolerant rhetoric was complete.
Proposition 187 passed, but a federal judge ruled it unconstitutional. As Mexico’s president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, decried the law as xenophobic, Wilson and his fellow Republicans doubled down and appealed the court’s decision. Although they ultimately failed to enact the law, they did succeed in driving a lasting wedge between the GOP and California’s Latino community.
Latino participation in California’s elections increased dramatically, and Republicans found it harder and harder to attract their votes. In 1998, Dan Lungren, the GOP nominee for governor, received just 14 percent of the Latino vote.
Today no Republican holds elected statewide office in California, and Democrats hold a nearly 2-to-1 majority over Republicans in both the state Senate and the Assembly. Since Proposition 187, the state has never voted Republican for president. And Wilson’s campaign for the White House in 1996 lasted barely more than a month.
Now let’s turn to Texas. In 1994, the Texas Democratic Party was thriving. Two of the last three governors — Mark White and Ann Richards — were Democrats. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, a Texan, had run on the national Democratic ticket for vice president in 1988 and was serving as U.S. Treasury secretary. George W. Bush had narrowly defeated incumbent Richards, but Democrats had been re-elected to the offices of lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller and state treasurer.
When it came to illegal immigration, Bush opposed “the spirit of 187” for Texas, saying he felt that “every child ought to be educated regardless of the status of their parents.”
From his first days as governor, Bush signaled that Mexico was not the enemy. He invited the governors of the five Mexican states closest to Texas to his inauguration and in his speech that day welcomed them, saying, “Friends bring out the best in each other. May our friendship bring much good to both our countries.”
The Texas GOP actively recruited Latinos into the party ranks. Continued outreach — emphasizing inclusion and respect for Latinos — helped the party achieve dominance in a state in which Latinos now approach 40 percent of the population.
No Democrat has won statewide office in Texas since 1994. As for Bush, he was re-elected president in 2004 with one of the highest vote percentages among Latinos ever achieved by a Republican.
So the inclusive approach, derided by many conservatives today, led to dominance for the Republican Party in Texas. And the exclusionary approach, which seems to please the base, led to its virtual extinction in California.
This election cycle, the national Republican Party must decide how it will address the very real problem of the 8.8 million Latin American immigrants in the U.S. illegally. If the past is prologue, it should be an easy choice.
Joe Trippi is a Democratic strategist and media consultant who ran Howard Dean’s campaign for president and was a media advisor to California Gov. Jerry Brown in 2010.