Pence, a rising star in the conservative movement, has faced a torrent of right-wing abuse for advocating a guest worker program that is condemned as amnesty for illegal aliens. Rep. Tom Tancredo, leader of the congressional hard-liners on immigration, has viciously branded Pence as an apostate. But Pence told me last week that Hoosier voters, when he explains it to them, will accept his three-part formula on immigration: protect the border, no amnesty for illegals and access for foreign workers needed by the U.S. economy.
Although no more than 25 House Republicans follow Tancredo's rigid line, that is enough to obstruct a coherent Republican posture. But many more conservative lawmakers write off any guest worker program as just amnesty. In trouble on Iraq and federal spending, Republicans are being lured into a nativist posture that is political fool's gold.
George W. Bush, John McCain and Mike Pence dread a Republican descent into nativism. In my half century of political reporting, I never have seen a candidate or party succeed in playing the economic nationalist card. Even worse, a divided party promises to go into the hazardous 2006 election after doing nothing about an issue its constituents think is most important.
"You get it!" Bush earlier this year told Pence after he agreed with the president that permitting new immigration is compatible with protected borders. "I not only get it, I lived it," the congressman replied, telling him of his grandfather, Mike, who emigrated from Ireland in 1923 and became a Chicago bus driver. Pence told me last week from Indiana he will try to make something happen in the September session. It is an uphill climb, but the grim alternative is a divided Republican Party going into this election campaign with a blank slate on immigration.