The debate over President Bush’s immigration bill and opposition to it as an “amnesty” proposal have invigorated otherwise dispirited conservative interest groups and forged an anti-Bush unity on the right not seen since the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers.
Hopeful signs have materialized for conservative leaders who have opposed the drive by the president, top Senate Republicans and leading Democrats to give legal status to illegal aliens while giving what critics deride as lip service to border security.
“The right generally has been invigorated by the debate and has pulled together in part because of the way the administration has attempted to demonize its conservative opposition,” said David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union (ACU).
“So the conservatives who have concerns about the direction the administration wants to take the country on immigration but who disagree with each other have come together to defend each other,” Mr. Keene said, making conservatives stay united “in a way they have not been since the Harriet Miers debacle.”
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, reports a similar experience even though his group focuses on religious and values issues and has “not been directly involved in the immigration debate.”
Nevertheless, he said, “it is obvious that this issue has struck a nerve among conservatives, and they are pushing back against what they perceive to be a wayward GOP as individuals and through organizations that are challenging the Republican Party.”
Some leaders report either a firming up of donations or an actual increase, at a time when conservatives have been meeting privately to find ways to resuscitate their movement.
“Even people who have not given to us on the basis of immigration ask us about our position,” said Paul M. Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative think tank and lobby group that opposes amnesty for illegals.
“When we tell them our position, we get a bigger-than-expected contribution — or at the very least, we get them to continue as a contributors,” Mr. Weyrich said. “It’s clear that if our position were different and we were in support of the president”s bill, we would get no further contribution.”
Mr. Weyrich said his group has “seen a 10 percent increase in smaller donors.”
Mr. Keene said that ACU members “are very much engaged on immigration. They aren’t all singing the same tune, but they are enraged at what they see as a political establishment attempting to jam something down their throats without prior discussion or consultation. And there”s nothing like that to get people’s blood flowing.”
Mr. Perkins said the Family Research Council has “seen an increase in interest and support since scandal-plagued Republicans lost control of Congress in November. There is a sense that the Republicans have fallen down and they can’t get up.”
Eagle Forum President Phyllis Schlafly said that while her group has not seen significant membership changes, its members overwhelmingly support her stance against the president and his political strategists on immigration.
“The conservative movement in general is very despondent about the Republican leadership and Bush, especially on immigration,” she said.
“I have been writing about immigration since 9/11, my membership is strictly grass roots and mostly Republican, and about 98 percent are in agreement with what I”m writing in opposition to what Bush wants on immigration,” Mrs. Schlafly said.