“Modest and Respectful No More”

Rightwing opponents of immigration reform experience personal attacks from Bush and his conservative allies. It is hard to be sympathetic.

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Did you know that conservatives hate America? It seems that those who oppose the compromise immigration legislation now before Congress are employing “empty political rhetoric trying to frighten our citizens.” So says our president, George W. Bush: “[I]f you don’t want to do what’s right for America, you can pick one little aspect out of it. You can use it to frighten people.”

Even more interesting, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona concurs. “To want the office so badly that you would intentionally make our country’s problems worse might prove you can read a poll or take a cheap shot,” he explains. “But it hardly demonstrates presidential leadership.”

What’s going on here? Well, columnist Mickey Kaus (who is not exactly a conservative) draws a comparison between immigration reform and the Iraq war in The Los Angeles Times: “Those who have doubts about Bush’s plans (e.g., Brent Scowcroft on Iraq) get little sympathy from him, however. They’re seen not as prudent realists but as cultural imperialists, even racists: What, you think Iraqis are incapable of democracy? What, you think the immigrants from south of the border are any different from previous immigrants?”

I don’t remember any conservatives complaining about this kind of thing when those of us who had the good sense to oppose the Iraq war in advance were being subjected to the exact same sort of attacks on our motives, character, and patriotism. Remember, for instance, Bush’s complaint when Senate Democrats balked at allowing him to strip Homeland Security workers of their right to join public unions: “The Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington, and not interested in the security of the American people”?

Or recall when former Republican Speaker of the House Tom Delay signed a mass-mail fundraising letter that called labor leaders’ efforts to organize federal workers “sickening” and “a clear and present danger to the United States”? Boy, those were the days.

Heck, you’d never have guessed it but right-wingers don’t like it one little itty-bitty bit when the administration turns its “patriotism” guns on them. National Review’s Mark Steyn complains: “I respect the President and I appreciate that his sincerity on this issue has been obvious for his entire political career. But I don’t think he should impugn the good faith of those who, equally sincerely, disagree—not on ‘narrow slices’ but on the central proposition.”

Indeed, other NRO stalwarts of the “liberals hate America” days of yore find themselves similarly incredulous, from Kathryn Jean Lopez to Mark Levin. The New Republic’s Jon Chait could not help but observe of all this: “My God, President Bush is impugning the good faith of his political opponents! What happened to the thoughtful, fair-minded, unwaveringly logical president we once knew?”

Saddest among ex-Bush boosters however, may be the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan, who once fell in love with Ronald Reagan’s foot. In the good old days she saw president Bush as a “transparently a good person, a genuine fellow who isn’t hidden or crafty or sneaky or mean, a person of appropriate modesty…respectful, moderate, commonsensical, courteous…a modest man of faith” who, after 9/11, possessed “a new weight, a new gravity, a new physical and moral comfort,” “a sharp and intelligent instinct, an inner shrewdness.”

Um, never mind. Turns out, says Noonan, that “the president has taken to suggesting that opponents of his immigration bill are unpatriotic—they ‘don’t want to do what’s right for America.’” 

Undeterred by such conservative handwringing, the president’s ally in the fight for immigration reform, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, is taking the fight to the enemy, “We’re gonna tell the bigots to shut up,” he thundered. On Fox last weekend he vowed to “push back.”

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is even more acerbic, suggesting that opponents would prefer illegal immigrants be killed. More accurately, perhaps, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez says those who oppose the bill want “mass deportation.” Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson is also weighing into this right-vs-right-wing debate, saying those who oppose the bill are “anti-immigrant,” suggesting they suffer from “rage” and “national chauvinism.”

Noonan has recently discovered of the Bush administration that, “the great thing it is missing, is simple wisdom…that personal loyalty is not a good enough reason to put anyone in charge of anything, that the way it works in politics is a friend becomes a loyalist becomes a hack, and actually at this point in history we don’t need hacks.”

She’s right, of course, but credit the “crunchy” conservative columnist Rod Dreher with raising the issue of Noonan’s own responsibility for her current unhappiness. Dreher notes that the conservative movement, as much as Bush, “owns” the failures of the past six years.

Let’s give Dreher the last word: “Bush is today who he always was. The difference is we conservatives pretty much loved the guy—when he was a winner.”

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress. His weblog, “Altercation,” appears at His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will appear early next year.

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Eric Alterman

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