Michael Gerson

Immigration used to be a debate among Republicans. Now the issue survives mainly as a weapon.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney-- who once commented on illegal immigrants, "I don't believe in rounding up 11 million people and forcing them at gunpoint from our country" -- attacks Rudy Giuliani for not rounding up enough illegal immigrants when he was mayor of New York. Giuliani -- who once said, "If you come here and you work hard and you happen to be in an undocumented status, you're one of the people who we want in this city" -- criticizes Romney for tolerating "sanctuary cities" in Massachusetts.

One gets the impression of decent men, intimidated by the vocal anger of elements of their own party.

That anger is pushing Republicans into some powerful symbols of indifference to Hispanic voters. The Univision Republican debate, scheduled for last Sunday with simultaneous translation into Spanish, was postponed when only Sen. John McCain agreed to show up. Rep. Tom Tancredo objected to the event on principle: "We should not be doing things that encourage people to stay separate in a separate language" -- which raises the question: Is saying "Viva Cuba Libre" no longer permissible for Republicans? And this snub came on the heels of conspicuous Republican absence at a forum held by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, and at the National Council of La Raza convention.

It is a strange spectacle. Conservatives are intent on building a more appealing, post-Bush Republican Party. But their most obvious change so far is to reverse remarkable Republican gains among one of the fastest-growing groups of American voters. The renovators seem more like the wrecking crew.

From the beginning of his political career, George W. Bush refused to support amnesty for illegal immigrants. He did, however, take a principled, middle-ground position that also appealed to Latinos -- a proposal that would give legal status to those who want to work in America and return home, while also providing a realistic (but not easy) path to citizenship for those who want to stay.

The political effects were immediate. Bob Dole got about 21 percent of Hispanic votes in 1996. Bush won about 35 percent in 2000. In 2004, Bush ran in the Latino media on the slogan "Nos conocemos," or "We know one another" -- and both he and Republicans in Congress averaged over 40 percent of the Hispanic vote.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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