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Bill Press: GOP forgets lesson of ‘94

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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 (R-Ohio) is doing today by refusing to allow a vote on immigration reform. 

I must admit, I watch Republican intransigence on immigration today with a certain amusement, because I’ve seen this movie before. 

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In California, 20 years ago, it was hard getting much of the Latino community involved in politics. Democrats tried. I personally ran a voter registration drive in East Los Angeles. But residents distrusted government so much, it was hard convincing them to register, let alone vote. At the same time, Democrats feared that, if Latinos ever did register, they’d sign up as Republicans, because most of them were Catholic, pro-family and pro-small business. 

Then came 1994. I was California Democratic state chairman when Republican Gov. Pete Wilson endorsed Proposition 187, an anti-immigrant ballot initiative that banned the state from providing healthcare, public education or other social services to illegal immigrants in California. 

In so doing, he woke up the “sleeping giant.” Angry at Wilson’s war, millions of Latinos came out and registered to vote — not as Republicans, but as Democrats. And look what happened. No Republican presidential candidate has won the Golden State since. Today, every statewide officer is a Democrat, and Democrats hold a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature. Thank you, Pete Wilson!

Surely, having been stung once, Republicans would learn their lesson. Nope. They’re making the same mistake today, on the national level. Some Republicans like George W. Bush understand the importance of immigration reform. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) even warned that, if Republicans don’t endorse comprehensive reform, they could forget about ever winning the White House again. But their voices are drowned out by the shrill cries of Tea Party extremists, who believe the only good Latino is one on a bus back to Mexico. And those extremists are the only ones Boehner’s listening to.  

Opposition to any immigration reform, even President Obama’s request for supplemental funds, might placate Tea Partyers in the short term, but it’ll hurt the Republican Party in the long term — and already has. Support in the Latino community for GOP presidential candidates has dropped from a high of 44 percent in 2004 for George W. Bush, to 32 percent in 2008 for John McCain, to an embarrassing 27 percent in 2012 for Mitt Romney. Now Boehner, forgetting the lessons of 1994, seems determined to drive it even lower. 

On public policy issues, there’s often a difference between the right thing to do and the politically smart thing to do. Immigration reform is an exception. Passing comprehensive reform, the right thing to do, is also the politically smart thing to do. 

Sadly, Republicans insist on doing neither. They’re making the same dumb mistake they made in 1994. That might be good for Democrats, but it’s bad for the nation. 

 Press is host of “The Bill Press Show” on Free Speech TV and author of The Obama Hate Machine.