With his Democratic challengers preoccupied, President Bush demonstrated the advantages of incumbency yesterday with a proposal for undocumented workers aimed squarely at the Latino community, which is destined to be one of the most important swing constituencies in the November election.
At a time when the Democratic candidates are worried about attracting the support of their party's most loyal -- and often most liberal -- activists, the president's proposal to legalize undocumented workers looked beyond his conservative Republican base. It was the latest indicator that Bush and his political advisers plan to press their advantages to shape the general election environment well before Democrats even find a nominee.
That general election is still a long way off, and Bush faces significant challenges, from stabilizing Iraq to restoring the jobs lost on his watch. Nor is it clear that the guest-worker proposal will pay big political dividends, given the criticism it received for not offering undocumented workers the prospect of legalization.
But this president starts the year from a far more solid political foundation than did his father, including an approval rating higher than any incumbent seeking reelection since World War II. Any hopes among Democrats that they might pattern 2004 as a rerun of 1992 appear to be gone, according to Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who said Bush and his father faced "two fundamentally different situations" in their reelection campaigns.
At this point 12 years ago, three in five Americans said they wanted the country taken in a different direction. Last month, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that almost three in five felt positive about this president's policies. At the beginning of 1992, Bush's father's economic approval rating was about 25 percent. Bush's is just over 50 percent. Last month, according to a Washington Post-ABC News Poll, almost three in five Americans said the economy was not good or poor, compared with nine in 10 who gave the economic negative ratings a dozen years ago.
Still, Bush faces a country far more divided and polarized than did his father, who lost his reelection bid, or President Ronald Reagan, who won his in a landslide. His political team has been focused on trying to expand support by appealing to different constituencies, from suburban women to younger men to senior citizens to investors, knowing that small changes in big support from any of those groups can pay off significantly in 2004.
Rapidly growing group
No constituency figures more prominently into that strategy than Hispanics, the most rapidly growing minority group in the country, one with a tradition of supporting the Democratic Party and a critical force in big states including California and Texas and small states such as Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado. Bush's advisers say unless they can attract a bigger share of the Latino vote, the GOP will have little chance of becoming the country's dominant political party.
Bush was moving toward proposing changes in immigration law before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to a White House official. Those attacks dramatically changed the climate on immigration and border security and forced Bush to set aside any thought of immigration law reform. But reaching out to the Latino community has remained one of Bush's most important political objectives, despite the fact that immigration reform is a divisive issue within the GOP.
Many conservative Republicans oppose liberalized immigration laws. A Pew Research Center poll last year found that twice as many conservative Republicans as liberal Democrats believe that immigrants threaten traditional culture in the country.
Twelve years ago, Bush's father could not have proposed anything opposed by Republican conservatives because he faced a primary challenge from conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, who was strongly against liberalized immigration. Without a primary challenge and enjoying unprecedented support from GOP conservatives, this president can do so without significant political risk.
One Bush adviser said immigration is far less a hot-button issue among conservatives than some analysts suggest. "It's more conservative pundits than conservatives," the adviser said. "The way this is coming out, with temporary legal status, I am not worried about the conservative base."
Democrats took issue with Bush's proposal, arguing that it does not go far enough. Bush's proposal, in the words of Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), "rewards business over immigrants" by giving companies a pool of cheap labor while failing to put undocumented workers on a path toward permanent legal residency or citizenship.
But a Democratic strategist, speaking on a not-for-attribution basis, described the proposal as "brilliant" politics that could help to refurbish Bush's "compassionate conservative" credentials, appeal to moderate swing voters and make it much harder for Democrats to win several states on their target list. "They've done a lot to try to put the general election away and at a minimum they may have taken Arizona and New Mexico off the table," the strategist said.
Bush's team has systematically tried to chip away at Democratic constituencies with policy initiatives, starting with education at the beginning of his presidency and most recently with legislation adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. Social Security privatization, a Bush initiative in the 2000 campaign aimed at younger voters, could come back in this campaign.
Those Bush policy initiatives have produced mixed political results, however. Bush's emphasis on education initially narrowed the Democratic advantage on the issue but the margin has widened again over the past year. The prescription drug bill has been far more controversial than Republican strategists had hoped, and Bush's approval rating among Americans over age 65 in last month's Post-ABC News poll was 50 percent, compared with 59 percent overall.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) predicted a similar fate for Bush's guest-worker proposal. "If it ends here, I believe politically it will not make much difference," he said. "With the Latino voter, it will not advance the Republican cause."
But Bush reminded the Democratic candidates, who have spent the past year in a conversation with their activists, that neither side can win the election only on the strength of support from members of their own party. From the bully pulpit of the White House, Bush enjoys a luxury his opponents cannot match now, and in stepping out on immigration he demonstrated that he intends to press that advantage early and aggressively in this election year.