President Bush did not intend to single out his conservative supporters for criticism in a speech on immigration reform last week and was "surprised" that his remarks angered Republicans, White House spokesman Tony Snow said yesterday.
"He was surprised by the reaction," Mr. Snow said of Mr. Bush's speech in Glynco, Ga., last week. "The speech in Georgia was, 'We've got a serious problem, and we need to fix it.' It was not in any way designed to be pointed at Republicans."
But conservative opponents of a Senate immigration bill supported by Mr. Bush reacted furiously to the president's suggestion that they are resorting to scare tactics by using the word "amnesty" in referring to the measure that would allow millions of illegal aliens to remain in the United States.
"Those determined to find fault with this bill will always be able to look at a narrow slice of it and find something they don't like," Mr. Bush said in the May 29 speech about the legislation being debated in the Senate. "If you want to kill the bill, if you don't want to do what's right for America, you can pick one little aspect out of it, you can use it to frighten people. Or you can show leadership and solve this problem once and for all."
Some Republicans on Capitol Hill said that Mr. Bush seemed to be questioning their patriotism, and several conservative activists said the president was splitting the Republican Party by insulting those who have been his most loyal supporters.
Mr. Snow yesterday said the immigration dispute between the president and conservatives "does not mark a point of disjunction" and emphasized that the White House recognizes and is responding to conservative opposition to the measure.
"We understand if you're going to get this thing done, you're going to need Republicans," Mr. Snow said. "It's important to build a large coalition, including our conservative base."
Mr. Snow's comments, however, may compound the problem.
"If the Bush team claims surprise at the reaction, then conservatives will see that as another symptom that they're out of touch," said former Rep. Ernest Istook, Oklahoma Republican.
Mr. Snow's defense of the president's remarks shows that "the White House is in denial about this issue," said longtime conservative publicist Craig Shirley, an opinion shared by American Conservative Union Chairman David A. Keene.
"The plain meaning of what he said was clear," Mr. Keene said. "Tony and others within the administration had been urging conservatives prior to the president's remarks to give Bush the benefit of the doubt as far as motives are concerned and to keep the debate civil. 'After all,' [Mr. Snow] said at a meeting I attended, 'at the end of the day, we're all on the same team.'
"So it's easy to see why he's in denial," Mr. Keene said, "but the president's prepared remarks and some of the things he has said make it clear that conservatives, or at least those with the temerity to disagree with the White House line [on immigration], are no longer welcome on the team."
While one recent poll indicated that Republicans oppose the Senate bill by a 3-to-1 margin, Mr. Bush and his supporters have repeatedly accused the measure's critics of being "anti-immigrant." On Friday, Mr. Bush said "those who call it amnesty" are "just trying to ... frighten people," and in a Wall Street Journal interview last week, the president compared the bill's opponents to those who opposed civil rights for blacks.
"[I]f people think that a party is against somebody or some group of people, you'll pay a political price for it. ... If you're viewed as anti-civil rights, in the past, the party paid a price," Mr. Bush told the Journal's Kimberly Strassel. "If you're viewed as anti-immigrant ... it could cause serious long-term political consequences."
Mr. Snow's denial that the president's remarks were aimed at Republicans was implausible, conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly said,
"I can't figure out who President Bush's words were intended for, if not the conservative base of the party," said Mrs. Schlafly, president of Eagle Forum.
As for Mr. Snow's claim that there is no split in the party over immigration, Mrs. Schlafly said, "The majority of Republicans are very much opposed to the Senate bill and what the president wants. And the president certainly is not helping the Republican Party by attacking its base."
However, the Senate bill has key conservative supporters, including Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, who echoed Mr. Bush's position in a debate this week when he said that opposition to the immigration bill was "bad for America and ... bad for the country."
In an interview this week, Mr. Norquist said the immigration issue is not "a vote-moving issue" for Republicans.
"We need to constantly speak to what the country needs," Mr. Norquist told The Washington Times.
"Mass deportations? People don't want that. You should speak to the American people, not to radio talk-show hosts," said Mr. Norquist, who said that the Senate bill's opponents are "a handful of loud people who talk about it loudly."
But some of the president's strongest allies said confrontation with Republicans is not the way to go.
"This is an argument among the family," said former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, who supports the immigration bill and has long been a loyal Bush supporter, having run the president's 2004 re-election campaign. "Let's remember that the people on the other side are our friends, our allies, our ideological allies.
"Immigration is an issue that divides Republicans, divides friends, and when that happens, one of the most important things is to lower the rhetoric, have a discussion, but do it in such a way that is respectful, and recognizes that both sides have good reasons for their positions," he said.