George W. Bush's new book, "Decision Points," has been widely panned as dull and defensive, but on at least one subject he makes a strong argument worth hearing. The former president connects the failure to reform immigration laws and remove trade barriers and places the blame exactly where it belongs: on unthinking and uninformed xenophobia.
During the last election, both parties were guilty of willful ignorance in pursuit of cynical political gain. Democrats opposed trade expansion to please their backers in organized labor; Republicans used the immigration issue to stir up the law-and-order crowd. So both have something to learn from a man who knows what he's talking about.
"The failure of immigration reform points out larger concerns about the direction of our politics," Bush writes. "The blend of isolationism, protectionism and nativism that affected the immigration debate also led Congress to block free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. I recognize the genuine anxiety that people feel about foreign competition. But our economy, our security and our culture would all be weakened by an attempt to wall ourselves off from the world."
Start with immigration. Every study shows that newcomers help the economy far more than they hurt it. Whether it's the Mexican family who runs the neighborhood restaurant or the Indian computer scientist who's working on the next iPad, immigrants are job-creating engines. America is only 12 percent foreign born, but 30 percent of Microsoft's patents are based on the work of immigrant inventors.
Yet in many states, particularly in the West, Republican candidates decided to demonize newcomers. And many of them paid a heavy price. Nationally, Hispanics favored Democrats 64 percent to 34 percent, but in three states — Nevada, Colorado and California — they clearly made the difference in critical Senate contests.
In Nevada, the GOP's Senate candidate, Sharron Angle, ran an ad depicting Sen. Harry Reid as "the best friend an illegal immigrant ever had." She didn't mean it as a compliment, but the ad backfired. Hispanics came out in large numbers and backed Reid by more than two to one — the biggest reason that he survived Angle's challenge.
"I wouldn't have been surprised if Harry Reid gave his victory speech in Spanish," political consultant Fernand Amandi told Bloomberg.com. "The Democrats … owe their majority in the Senate to the Hispanic vote."
In Colorado, Democrat Michael Bennet rode a tide of Hispanic votes to a narrow edge over Republican Ken Buck. In California, it was a similar story. Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, who took a sharp stance against immigration, actually won the white vote by nine points. But 22 percent of the voters were Hispanic, and they backed the Democrat, Sen. Barbara Boxer, by two to one, providing her margin of victory.
Bush and his political adviser Karl Rove have always understood the rising power of the Hispanic vote, and a few Republicans shared their insight. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American, won a majority of Latinos — and a Senate seat — in Florida. But most GOPers continue to alienate the country's fastest-growing minority, an act of sheer political suicide.
On trade, it was the Democrats who played politics while ignoring reality. In many states, they blamed foreign competition and "outsourcing" for the loss of manufacturing jobs. They knew the argument was false but they made it anyway. As business professor Alberto Salvo of Northwestern told UPI: "We will not create jobs if we shut ourselves out of the global market."
Free-trade pacts that the Bush administration negotiated with Colombia, Panama and South Korea languish in the Senate, while other countries are racing to conclude agreements that will open markets and reduce unemployment. "We are falling behind," warned economist Thomas Duesterberg.
President Obama finally seems to be grasping that fact. Faced with an intractable economy that is recovering far too slowly, he focused on trade as a job-creating mechanism during his recent trip to Asia. And Ohio voters chose a new Republican senator, Rob Portman, who served as Bush's trade representative and strongly advocates reducing tariff barriers.
We are not naive, but there are flickers of hope here. Yes, both parties seem intent on continuing the partisan warfare that has wasted Washington for years now. But if lawmakers listen to President Bush, if they jettison the "isolationism, protectionism and nativism" that has infected the capital's bloodstream, if they really want to do something about creating jobs and boosting prosperity, they have two clear options right there in front of them — expand trade and expand immigration.