WASHINGTON -- I asked one of the few conservative Republican senators who stuck with President Bush on immigration to assess how Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell handled the issue. Asking not to be quoted by name, he replied: "If this were a war, Sen. McConnell should be relieved of command for dereliction of duty." Not only did the minority leader end up voting against an immigration bill that he said was better than the 2006 version that he supported, but he also abandoned his post, keeping off the floor during final stages of Senate debate.
Although I never before had seen a Senate party leader completely bail out of a major legislative fight, relieving McConnell of command seems too drastic. He until now had high marks from colleagues during his six-month leadership following four dreary years under Bill Frist. McConnell's non-performance on immigration derived from general Republican malaise going well beyond a single issue.
It is difficult to exaggerate the pessimism about the immediate political future voiced by Republicans in Congress when not on the record. With an unpopular president waging an unpopular war, they see electoral catastrophe in 2008 with Democratic gains in both House and Senate and Hillary Clinton in the White House. In such an atmosphere, these lachrymose lawmakers for several months have faced an increasingly hysterical onslaught from constituents demanding the death of the "amnesty" for immigrants that they hear vilified daily on talk radio.
These callers recently swamped phone lines to Republican Congressional offices (as well as the White House) with threats that they never would vote again for anybody supporting "amnesty." While that intimidated previous supporters of the immigration bill, its opponents reacted to the xenophobia of their backers as a ray of light in the bleak political landscape.
"We did it!" exulted freshman Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, one of the bill's leading Republican opponents, e-mailing financial contributors (including some who never had given DeMint any money). "When the U.S. Senate brought the Amnesty bill back up this week, they declared war on the American people." The message concluded with a request for a donation to DeMint's 2010 re-election fund. DeMint was not the only triumphant e-mailer. Newt Gingrich, eyeing a presidential run, declared to contributors "a soaring victory for the American people" by defeating the "Bush-Kennedy-McCain bill."