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Jewish World Review April 11, 2001 / 18 Nissan, 5761

Amity Shlaes

Amity Shlaes
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The right must learn the comfort of strangers

Conservatives are falling into the same trap as Republicans by railing against immigration, not supporting growth -- LEADERS of Britain's Conservatives pounded the party recently after backbencher John Townend vented his spleen on the threat posed by immigrants to "Anglo-Saxon society". The reaction sent a clear message: anti-immigrant outbursts would damage the Tories' chances in the June general election.

But muzzling the loudmouths is not enough. At least, not when a party still gives off - as the Tories do - the general impression of being down on immigrants. In fact, any negative message about immigrants is a vote-loser.

The aim of any party should be to win the immigrant vote and the votes of friends of immigrants. Here one must ask: what inspires these groups in the first place? The answer is not better state hand-outs; it is the prospect of wider economic opportunity. Better, then, lead with this goal and suppress the anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Just ask America's Republicans. Their 1990s excursion into nativism nearly cost them the presidency last year.

In the early 1990s, the Republicans faced many of the challenges familiar to European parties of the centre-right. There were fears of economic downturn and job loss. Foreigners - asylum candidates, illegal workers, parents of immigrants - demanded costly social services. Populists on the right - Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan - were threatening the party establishment.

Grand Old Party leaders reacted by going on to the defensive. Rather than continue the old argument that growth would reduce social tensions, the GOP shifted its ground. The party began to maintain, as the Tory party does now, that it would match opponents' promises of a certain level of benefits for all citizens. By the same logic, the GOP began backing - much more explicitly and forcefully - a strong anti-immigrant agenda. If the economic pie was finite, it must not be squandered on strangers.

The GOP's new strategy was twofold. First, rather than silence its anti-immigrant wing as it might have done in the past, the GOP permitted its restrictionists to vent their dissatisfactions. Party opponents of immigration began complaining loudly about Mexican mothers exploiting free milk programmes and other outrages. Occasionally the Republican National Committee itself joined in immigrant-bashing. In spring 1996, when the protectionist Mr Buchanan looked his most dangerous, the RNC published a document titled America: Welcome Mat or Doormat? It blamed immigration for wage declines.

Part two was to plan legislation that restricted immigration or controlled its cost. In California, Republican lawmakers backed Proposition 187, a voter initiative to curtail social benefits to non-citizens. At the federal level, Republican lawmakers joined pro-union Democrats to back legislation to reduce employment-based visas and other forms of immigration, all in the name of "saving" American jobs.

Selling these programmes was harder than expected. Proposition 187 failed and Congress and the White House pared down the immigration law considerably. But the Republicans would not give up. In California, those who argued against the new xenophobe mood were dismissed as wimpy "east coast Republicans".

When the fund manager George Soros, the investment banker Felix Rohatyn and the industrialist Lee Iacocca warned that the proposed federal legislation would "significantly damage US growth, jobs and competitiveness", the GOP ignored them.

To say that the party's anti-immigration theme backfired would be understatement. The tactic failed utterly. Post-mortems of the 1996 presidential race showed that the outbursts did more to help Bill Clinton retain the White House than to protect the right flank of Bob Dole, his Republican challenger. Mr Dole was also weakened by a challenge from Steve Forbes, who advocated open immigration.

But it was the seemingly more reasonable programmes of immigration restrictions that did the most damage. In California, Hispanics saw the initiative to curtail state services to non-citizens as threatening - even though many of them were citizens themselves. The limits on state health care also offended white voters, who thought they did not meet American standards of fair play.

The party recognised its errors. It spent the rest of the 1990s trying to rectify them and and reverting to the old "opportunity for all" message. GOP chagrin was compounded as evidence mounted of the ridiculousness of the job-stealing argument. For, as we now know, the 1990s turned out to be a decade of both heavy immigration and falling unemployment. Within five years of their push for restrictions, Republicans found themselves arguing for more immigration.

But, once alienated, the nation's immigrant voters were not so easy to win back. An increasing share of foreign-born voters turned to the Democratic party. The burgeoning Hispanic population in California helped Democrats to win control of the state in the late 1990s. Even George W. Bush's ostentatious inclusion of Hispanics in his campaign did not help much. The Texas governor lost the Golden State by more than 1m votes, a defeat that would have been unthinkable in the days of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The electoral votes lost with California forced Mr Bush into the unseemly wrangling for the presidency.

All this is not to say that centre-right parties need embrace the state multiculturalism of their opponents. Or even that they must open all borders at all times. Rather, it tells us that parties must recall what draws immigrants to our countries - a chance to be part of a growing economy - and put that chance in the political foreground.

JWR contributor Amity Shlaes is a columnist for Financial Times . Her latest book is The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy and What to Do About It. Send your comments by clicking here.


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