March 24, 2006
I try to refrain from bashing France, but the news today makes it hard not to. President Jacques Chirac's conservative (by their standards) party is trying to pass a bill that would make it easier to fire workers who fail to perform, eliciting sharp resistance. Protests against the proposed reform law (known as the CPE, meaning "First Job Contract") have turned violent, but unlike last November, the perpetrators are the French people themselves. Back then, Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy bore the brunt of criticism, and now Prime Minister Pierre Villepin is on the hot seat. Since the two men are the main contenders for the Gaullist party's candidate in the next presidential elections, it would appear that conservative politics are on the decline in France. For much more background on this, see today's Washington Post. To his credit, President Chirac thus far has refused to be intimidated by the riots or the ultimatum issued by the French labor leader, but he probably doesn't have enough political capital left to prevail; see BBC.
What on Earth is wrong with the French? How could a proud, highly civilized country descend into such chaos and tumult? Well, it's not the first time, of course: Charles DeGaulle was faced with a similar ugly mass uprising by students in 1968, so such upheaval is something of a local tradition. Still, it is a clear symptom of a system that has gone awry. The French political establishment has become complacent and stuck in a rut over the years, pretending that things will get better on their own. France is probably the most egregious of all the European social democracies, with generous entitlements and long six-week paid vacations, as long as you "belong." It's a good life: the French Dream.
How can they possibly afford to keep this up in an era of global-scale competition? With cheap immigrant workers who are ineligible for such benefits, that's how. When a country is populated with coddled, blissfully ignorant people with their heads buried deep in the sand ("What clash of civilizations?"), bad policy is the usual result. On one hand, the beneficiaries of the (soon-to-be defunct) status quo resent any suggestion that they must change their ways, and on the other hand, the excluded/exploited ones (African Muslims, by and large) resent their inferior social and legal status. Over time, the present course will lead inevitably to sharply increased friction between the native French and the immigrants, accelerating France's decline as a world power. Interestingly, all this is happening at the same time that two smaller European countries are beginning to wake up and smell the coffee. Denmark and the Netherlands are tired of being pushed around, and are now standing up against the Islamic incursion.
So, what does this have to do with us? Take a look at the protest marches by immigrant "advocates" across the country this week. By happenstance, today's Washington Post also had a major story on the Great Immigration Debate that is causing great unease within the Party of Lincoln. Ironically, John McCain is lining up with President Bush in urging that a guest worker program be included, while Bill Frist is leaning toward the strong zero-tolerance position of Tom Tancredo. No doubt, the prominence given to this story may have something to do with the Post's editorial slant, and their desire to sow division among the Republicans. Nevertheless, it does provide a perfect illustration of how the Republican Party -- and indeed, our Republic -- has recently veered off in a dangerous direction, as a consequence of the short-term priority given to winning elections (let's call that the "Tom DeLay approach") over the pursuit of long-term structural reforms (the "Newt Gingrich approach"). It is the eternal conflict between the contrasting imperatives of policy efficacy (governmental actions that achieve their stated goals) on one hand, versus political expedience (staying in office) on the other. To understand this debate, it is necessary to take a look at the state and local level of politics.
Many people criticized GOP candidate for governor Jerry Kilgore for pushing the immigration issue too hard last fall, but I disagree. The problem is, as I stated last Sept. 28, is that he failed to draw the obvious (well, it's obvious to me) linkage between immigration and the broader need for a comprehensive social-economic policy reform. With mere half-measures, in contrast, people will doubt that you are sincerely committed to that ultimate goal. Kilgore laid out an ambitious reform agenda in the primary campaign, and then reverted to harsh attacks during the fall campaign against Tim Kaine, all but forgetting his original agenda. Result: an embarrassing and entirely avoidable loss. So how have Virginia Republicans reacted to this setback? By thoughtfully reconsidering the premises of the "Get Out The Vote" strategy (i.e., exhorting the conservative base while ignoring the moderates)? No, by blaming each other. I have personally witnessed so much bickering and recrimination over the disappointing election results last November that I am getting sick to my stomach.
Red-state Virginia is hardly alone in confronting this dilemma. Thanks to a tip from José Rodriguez, I learned that a similar controversy has split the Illinois Republican Party, where Judy Baar Topinka -- currently the state treasurer, and considered a moderate -- just won the primary election against four (!) party rivals, mostly conservatives. The runner-up, Jim Oberweis, sharply criticized the third-place candidate, Bill Brady, for voting to allow the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates. Brady is reluctant to hold children accountable for their parents' transgressions, which is understandable. See Chicago Sun Times. It is a similar rationale that Virginia State Sen. Emmet Hanger gave recently; see Feb. 10. I have no idea if Topinko has a reasonable shot at unseating incumbent Governor Blagojevich, but the public squabbling among rival Republicans during the primary season certainly didn't help their chances any.
I think these cases illustrate a gnawing problem within the Republican Party across America, which is in danger losing touch with its traditional conservative roots in a scramble to attract more votes via dumbed-down populist appeals. Jerry Kilgore kept saying last year that "Republicans trust the people," but that's not how many of them act when they are on the campaign trail. Over-coached by cynical advisers, they often pander to fashionable popular sentiments (e.g., "gas prices are too high!"), hemming and hawing when it comes to tough issues. This kind of behavior wastes the huge advantage the Republicans have as the party of economic freedom, hope, and opportunity. The more people you convince that they can get ahead in life by working hard and playing by the rules, the more voters the party will attract. With respect to immigration, all we reform advocates ask for is consistent public policy and enforcement of the laws. The status quo is intolerably cruel to immigrant workers, and that is something that everyone should agree on, except for certain unscrupulous businessmen, perhaps. Calling for tighter controls on immigration is not "anti-immigrant," it is anti-exploitation of immigrants!
In sum, unless the Republican Party gets its act together soon and articulates a compelling domestic policy reform agenda based on market principles, in the proud tradition of Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, it is doomed for the foreseeable future. If Republicans cannot muster enough intellect and imagination to resolve the basic policy vs. politics dilemma on their own, it is hard to see how they can ever hope to govern effectively. Even if the GOP manages to hang on to a slim majority in Congress this fall by heeding the advice of the crass "wise guys" like Karl Rove and Tom DeLay, after that there is nothing but bleakness on the political horizon, if current demographic trends continue. Time is not on our side. One of these days, if we don't wake up, the streets of Queens, El Paso, and Takoma Park will be in flames like the streets of Paris are today. We will look fondly back on the days when we were arguing bitterly about such comparatively trivial matters as the tax rate or how much to pay for widening highways.
UPDATE: The Federation for American Immigration Reform supports Majority Leader Frist's strong stand on immigration. He has issued an ultimatum to the Judiciary Committee to meet his deadline of coming up with a serious alternative immigration bill by March 27, which is Monday. See GOPUSA.com. Hey, maybe some people are starting to listen!
Immigration: Get in line, and Speed up the process.