This past week, President Bush aggravated a conflict which was already tearing the Republican coalition apart -- immigration reform. In the process, Bush widened the gap between the business-country club wing on one side and the party's social conservatives and 'Reagan Democrats' on the other.
The immigration issue has festered within the GOP since 2004 when the President first put it on the top of his legislative agenda. The Senate is now debating an administration-endorsed immigration bill that has provoked widespread complaints from conservatives who charge that the legislation grants amnesty and a path to citizenship to 12 million or more illegal immigrants now in the country.
In a May 28 speech at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia, Bush crossed a line, effectively accusing an entire segment of the conservative movement of disloyalty and a lack of patriotism.
"If you want to kill the bill," Bush said, "if 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. Or you can show leadership and solve this problem once and for all, so the people who wear the uniform in this crowd can do the job we expect them to do."
In those few lines, Bush categorized as un-American such individuals and institutions as Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, at least 60 percent of the Republican members of the House, the Heritage Foundation and more than half the candidates running for the Republican presidential nomination.
"This is a huge base issue," said Tom Davis, a Republican congressman from Virginia who is considering a Senate bid next year. "Clearly this hurt. The people who weren't mad at the president over Iraq will be angry over this."
In other words, at a time when Bush's popularity has reached record lows, his comments threaten to undermine support from hard-core loyalists, especially among blue collar voters who have stuck with the President on Iraq.
"There is something very bad happening within the Republican Party," said Craig Shirley, a long-time conservative activist and CEO of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs ."Fifty-six percent of the people despise Republicans. I have to laugh when I read in the Washington Post that (House
Minority Leader John) Boehner is trying to improve 'the Republican brand.' I'm not sure there is a Republican brand. If there is one, I'm not sure it's a consumer favorite," Shirley told The Huffington Post.
Peggy Noonan, in a blunt column, declared, "What conservatives and Republicans must recognize is that the White House has broken with them. What President Bush is doing, and has been doing for some time, is sundering a great political coalition. . . . 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.' His ally Sen. Lindsey Graham has said, 'We're gonna tell the bigots to shut up.' "
Carefully choosing his words, Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster whose clients include the pro-immigration American Hotel and Lodging Association, said some "folks feel like [Bush] is getting a little personal with them. It's very important that he be an aggressive proponent of comprehensive immigration reform. There are ways to do that that are more or less palatable to the base. Some of his phrasing was not particularly palatable."
At Townhall.com, a major conservative website bristling with rage at Bush, David Limbaugh, Rush's brother, wrote: "The president should hesitate before assuming the worst of motives in the very people who have tirelessly defended him, particularly on the war, against the people who are now his best friends on this abominable immigration bill."
There are substantial anti-immigration constituencies in both parties. But according to a March 30 analysis by the Pew Center for Research on People and the Press, the highest levels of opposition can be found among conservative, lower-income self-identified Republicans: those who do not have college degrees and those who are financially insecure.
So far, the Democrats have been lucky: almost all the fireworks have been taking place on the Republican side of the aisle. Insofar as the focus of the debate remains within the GOP, it is damaging both to the maintenance of the conservative base and to the drive to build Hispanic backing for the Republican Party.
A Bush loyalist suggested that the President's comments are less divisive than they might appear because Bush's relevance to the political situation is rapidly declining as the end of his presidency approaches: "The notion that there is something left of the bully pulpit is really not true with this presidency."
That argument is not selling on the right, however.
"The people who object to [the president's immigration bill] are the people who have stuffed the envelopes and rung the doorbells for the Republican Party generally, and for this President in particular," said leading social conservative Gary Bauer, founder of the Campaign for Working
Families and American Values. "They have stood with him when folks like Ted Kennedy were part of the efforts to basically castrate the president."
It is not clear how effective socially conservative opposition to the immigration bill will be. The conflict between the pro-immigration business wing of the GOP and the anti-immigration forces on the cultural right is most intense in the House, where the odds against enactment of the legislation are significant, but not insurmountable.