The GOP has successfully painted itself into a corner on immigration. So long as the issue remained out of the headlines, Karl Rove and the Wall Street Journal edit page could work on making the party immigration-friendly, a strategy aimed not only at courting Latino voters and moderates (perhaps even liberals) who might feel uncomfortable voting for a restrictionist party but also at reassuring business interests that Republicans will keep a steady supply of low-wage labor coming.
With the Minutemen and now the marches polarizing the issue — and with Bush having tried again and again to make his guest-workers plan a top priority — the party's moneybags and its primary voters are split, and all the Latinos Rove had tried to court (with very limited results) are left feeling betrayed. Latinos and restrictionists alike have reason to be furious with the party, and any attempt to create serious border-control legislation will have to include a cracking down on employers — which would give businesses a good reason to switch their contributions over the Democrats. At least for some industries, the economics of having regulation-loving and immigration-friendly Democrats in power are liklely to be more compelling than keeping the Republicans around.
There's a problem of tone, too. The Republicans have been working hard on their kinder, gentler image, but the base, tired of seeing big-spending Republican congressmen do nothing about hot-button issues, wants blood. Rhetoric that appeals to the grassroots would amoutn to a repudiation of the last five years of Republican policy under Bush; not only would such a change of pitch be internally divisive for the party, but, moreover, it's not clear who could be a spokesman for the new get-tough GOP. Bush, Frist, Hastert, Mehlman and company are not about to turn to Tancredo.
Compromise legislation — say, amnesty and a wall — would only aggravate both sides. Faced with a choice between alienating angry restrictionists or offending business interests, Republicans will try to punt, passing weak legislation to tamp down the populist rebellion while preserving as much of the status quo as possible. But the problem for the GOP is not that restrictionists might vote Democratic, but that they won't vote at all, and throwing a mild sop to them won't bring them out in force in November — while Latinos will remain energized to turn out of the power what they perceive to be the party of the Minutemen.
"From the standpoint of those who would applaud the House's [restrictionist] stand, I'd say we have not gotten sufficient credit," Georgia Republican Rep. Phil Gingrey tells the Washington Post, while Arizona Democrat Raul M. Grijalva says, "This has galvanized and energized the Latino community like no other issue I have seen in two decades, and that's going to have electoral consequences." The Republican Party is not about to change either of those facts between now and November.