- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 16, 2006

Watershed elections lead to grand celebrations on one side, wakes on the other. But once all the balloons and confetti have been swept away, many issues congressional Republicans left unresolved are still just that — unresolved. Issues such as illegal immigration do not fade away; they just become a problem for the other side.

Democrats are busy organizing the House and Senate, preparing new committee rosters, changing everything from furniture to parking spaces. At the same time, both parties are already posturing for the 2008 presidential election. Before vote tallies are final in a few local races, media eyes are focused squarely on candidates for the White House. Much of the speculation about the agenda of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi has already given way to the inevitable character stories about Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Al Gore, Bill Richardson, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Sam Brownback, and a host of others.

Instead of speculating on who might run, the pundits should ask, “who will lead?” It should seem clear by now that winning elections is much easier than leading, that campaigning is easier than governing.

Of the challenges facing both the new congressional leadership and potential presidential candidates, the illegal immigration issue stands out because it has become so divisive. Sadly, it appears leaders on both sides of the aisle missed the point during the election. Across the country, candidates who sought to use illegal immigration as their wedge issue were trounced in the election. Many House members decided adjourning without a bill and campaigning against illegal immigrants would be a winning strategy; many of them are now unemployed. Numerous candidates who advocated building the Great Wall found themselves on the losing side of a majority of American voters. Conversely, candidates who advocated tough border security, combined with a workable solution for temporary workers, fared much better.

Pollsters have said for months that most people support a more comprehensive approach, that they are not anti-immigration, that large majorities support border control and a guest worker program. Serious leaders who actually want to solve the problem have been discussing workable solutions for months. For example, Indiana Rep. Mike Pence and Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, both Republicans, were handily re-elected by voters who clearly appreciated their more thoughtful approach to both border security and labor problems.

Democratic leaders are already discussing amnesty and citizenship for lawbreakers, even though most Americans do not support amnesty, and most illegal workers do not want citizenship. And many Republicans, who should study the election results more carefully, are already positioning themselves to defeat any legislation and keep the issue “alive.” Both sides could again incur the wrath of the voters, who seem to understand the issue and are tired of rhetoric.

To some, the issue seems so divisive that solutions are impossible. Outgoing House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner, Wisconsin Republican, is quoted as saying, “If [Democrats] think they can wave a magic wand and get a bill passed that is acceptable to the majority of the American people, they’re going to find out as I did how difficult this is.” Difficult or not, Congress must address it. As La Raza’s Cecilia Munoz aptly put it, “We need to communicate that it is dangerous for Democrats to leave this issue on the table.”

Even more than congressional leaders, presidential candidates should be very careful in approaching this issue. They cannot afford to ignore it because it consistently polls as the third most important issue facing voters, right behind the war and the economy. Yet in deciding what to say about it, they must keep in mind one central reality: Most Americans oppose both extreme positions. Voters will not tolerate amnesty and an easy path to citizenship for those who broke our laws, and they understand the need for entry-level labor in our economy. They expect national leaders to come up with an answer that will control the borders and protect our national security, while providing jobs for the honest workers we need.

That may seem like a complicated undertaking, but it cannot be ignored. As the new congressional leadership will soon find out, and as anyone seeking the White House should already know, winning elections is only the first step. Inspiring a nation requires more than fundraising and messaging: It requires leadership.

Helen E. Krieble is president of the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation.

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