A Whispered “Sister Souljah”

So when I said earlier today the one thing that was clear from the Iowa Freedom Summit was that none of the vast number of speakers took the obvious opportunity to tell Steve King he was damaging the Republican Party with Latino voters and in general making the GOP look like the Troglodyte Party, I didn’t account for the claim that by staying away Jeb Bush was engaging in a profile of courage. Actually, Yahoo’s Jon Ward reaches this conclusion in part by parsing Bush’s words on immigration policy in a speech to car dealers in San Francisco on Friday.

The former Florida governor, whose Mexican-born wife learned English as a second language, continued to press forward with a message on immigration that has antagonized the Steve King wing of the GOP, insisting that the nation is “starving for leadership in the public realm.” Just as Bill Clinton criticized the racially inflammatory remarks of rapper Sister Souljah during his 1992 run, Bush is trying to challenge his party’s cultural hard-liners on an issue that could alienate many moderate voters in a general election.

“Our national identity is not based on race or some kind of exclusionary belief,” Bush said. “Historically, the unwritten contract has been: Come legally to this country, embrace our values, learn English, work, and you can be as American as anybody else. Immigrants are an engine of economic vitality.”

Bush argued that the United States is poised for a strong run of economic growth but that a healthy immigration policy is vital to making that happen. To fix the system, he said, the U.S. needs to “control” its border and to find immigrants who came to the country legally but stayed after their visa ran out. He said that 40 percent of the current illegal immigrant population in the United States ended up here by overstaying visas, and that the government should locate them and “politely ask them to leave.”

This, along with Bush’s past support for a guest worker program, is apparently what constitutes his brave stand on immigration policy: encouraging “self-deportation” with a smile, not a frown, and offering to some immigrants a form of legalization that perpetually forecloses citizenship.

It’s better than boxcars, I guess, but if this is the closest Republicans can do to a Sister Souljah to King–whispered from a couple of thousand miles away–color me unimpressed.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.