By Tom Baxter
Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell make a great tag team for a nonpartisan effort to pass immigration reform because, as Barbour noted after a session hosted by the Essential Economy Council last week, neither is nonpartisan in the least.
Getting Barbour, the chairman of the Republican National Committee when the Contract with America was signed, to co-chair an initiative on this sensitive political issue with Rendell, who chaired the Democratic National Committee during the tangled 2000 presidential election, does show broad support for an agreement on immigration reform.
But it’s broad and thin, with very little chance Congress can pass a bill this year, and the certainty that moving it next year with congressional elections looming won’t be easy.
As Maria Saporta reports in her story about their Rotary Club appearance, the task force the two governors are leading for the Bipartisan Policy Center is trying ton convince business interests, which Rendell called “absolutely essential to driving this to a successful conclusion,” to show forceful support for immigration reform.
But with a more left-leaning Democratic Party and a Republican Party in the sway of the Tea Parties and other groups which have increasingly clashed with the business end of their party, it’s going to be interesting to see what impact they can have on this highly charged issue.
“Big business doesn’t have a party. They’re for whoever wins,” Barbour said, when I asked him if his party might be trending less business-friendly. “The Republican Party has always been the party of small business. Small business has typically been very Republican, and a lot of these Tea Partiers are small business people. They’re a 60-year-old guy who owns a laundry or a grocery store or whatever, who got so afraid of Obama he got up off the couch with his wife and decided they had to do something to save their children.”
Barbour said the friction between conservatives over issues like the Southern Co.’s Kemper County coal gassification plant in Mississippi, which Barbour promoted but a fiscal conservative group opposes, is much the way the party in which he’s been involved for 45 years has always been.
“We have always had in the South a kind of populist group, who at one point had been George Wallace people, that came over to the party and they chaffed a little bit because they liked the government to spend a little bit more money than Republicans did, and then we had the Moral Majority, conservative Christian Democrats, who like the Wallace people got tired of the Democratic Party and came over to our party, and they chaffed that the business community wasn’t socially conservative enough. And now you’re seeing a different form of populism that is against spending, very unlike the George Wallace crowd that came over in the 70s , and there’s no question that is happening, but I think the truth is, this is kind of normal.”
Earlier, at a symposium at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, Barbour tied immigration reform to the changes within his party.
“We are the rural party in America right now and we are less the suburban party than we were when Ed and I were coming up,” Barbour said. “We’ve got to have Mississippi rural Republicans understand that this is the right thing for them in the long run, if we’re going to have the kind of rural economy that keeps people living in the country, that immigration reform is good for the rural party.”
As for the GOP’s poor showing among Hispanics in the 2012 presidential election, Barbour was scathing in his criticism of Mitt Romney.
“For Romney to get 27 percent of the vote after some of the things he said, actually gives me hope,” Barbour said.
I asked Rendell about the difficulties in fashioning a guest worker program that can work equally well in a country where the agricultural profile of every state, and the work patterns of those who come to pick their crops or milk their cows, is so varied.
“It’s not easy, but it’s achievable,” the former Pennsylvania governor said. “What you do is give the guest worker portability. Right now the guest worker is granted a visa based on working for a particular company, and if he gets fired or laid off, technically, he’s illegal. This would give that person time to find another and allow that visa to be portable. It’s also beneficial to guest workers because they can’t be extorted by their employer, either.”