Revoking Birthright Citizenship: What Would Bush Do?

As Matt Bai recalled in his New York Times column this weekend, President George W. Bush wanted a part of his political legacy to be expanding Republicans' appeal to nonwhites, in particular among Latinos. This hardly seemed a preposterous notion when he took office: Bush had performed respectably among Latino voters in Texas, and many Latinos are devout Catholics who lean conservative on social issues.

So much for that! A fierce opposition to illegal immigration swept the Republican base, nearly killing John McCain's presidential campaign in the primaries, and it is bubbling up again. As The Washington Post reports, Tea Party groups are planning an anti-immigration rally at what they say is a popular illegal crossing on the Texas-Mexico border.

In a rush to appease the angry mobs, a gaggle of leading congressional Republicans has raised the idea of revoking the Constitution's apparent granting of citizenship upon birth in the United States. (The 14th Amendment declares "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.")

Some former members of the Bush-Cheney administration think that the 14th Amendment, adopted in the wake of the Civil War, ought not to be changed to suit the GOP's midterm strategy. "The 14th Amendment is a great legacy of the Republican Party," Former Bush and McCain strategist Mark McKinnon said to Politico. "It is a shame and an embarrassment that the GOP now wants to amend it for starkly political reasons." That comes, as Politico's Scott Wong notes, on the heels of criticism of the proposal from Dick Cheney's former domestic policy adviser Cesar Conda and former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson.

While Gerson, Conda, and McKinnon criticized the movement to revoke birthright citizenship as bad policy, it might also be bad politics in the long run. Bai cautions that while the GOP could increase their margins among angry whites by fanning fears of a diversifying country, they would be further alienating a growing constituency.

But the Republicans are focused on the midterms, to the possible exclusion of long-term party building. That has been clear since the health-care-reform debate, when Republicans abandoned their longstanding opposition to government spending in general and Medicare in particular to complain that health-care reform would take money out of Medicare. That played well with seniors. The connection to the current ruckus over birthright citizenship? Older Americans are disproportionately white and the GOP is doubling down on its strategy of running up the margins among older whites to offset their deficits among younger and nonwhite voters.

As Jonathan Chait of The New Republic writes, this is good politics in an off-year election, when low turnout among newer voters guarantees an electorate that will skew older and whiter than the population as a whole. But a funny thing happens over time: children grow up, and start to vote, and the electorate diversifies. Will Republicans be able to erase the image of intolerance that this proposal may imprint among the young, nonwhite voters of the future?