Monday, August 15, 2005

Democratic hopefuls for 2008 are sensing how vulnerable President Bush is on border control. The latest sign: New Mexico’s politically shrewd governor, Bill Richardson, has made a partial about-face on the issue — at least in words — and is throwing money and attention at his state’s southern border. If he makes a national comeback from the Energy Department security scandals that all but ruined his reputation in the final years of the Clinton administration, it will owe in part to a seeming shift on border control that mirrors the one that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton made in December and then reneged upon.

Mr. Richardson’s record on the subject is the near antithesis of toughness. In 1996, as a New Mexico congressman, he voted against increases in border-control expenditures and against a work-verification program to discourage the hiring of illegals. His last few years as New Mexico governor have been more of the same. Responding to President Bush’s 2004 State of the Union address, Mr. Richardson, the nation’s only Hispanic governor, criticized the president’s guest-worker plan for “not help[ing] immigrant workers to obtain the golden dream: legalization and residency without impunity.” That’s one way of saying President Bush’s guest-worker proposal, which conservative critics rightly call an effective amnesty, isn’t expansive enough. As the state Minuteman leader, Clifford Alford, put it to local reporters last week, Mr. Richardson has “never done anything to secure the border and he’s not doing anything now.”

This year Mr. Richardson began changing his tune. In March, he appeared on Fox News Sunday with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and called for “tough law enforcement, more border guards, a crackdown on illegal smuggling, better detection of those that overstay their visas, stolen/lost passports.”

Last week, after a tour of border areas, Mr. Richardson declared a state of emergency in four counties abutting Mexico, citing growing border-area violence, property damage, drug smuggling and problems with illegals crossing the border. He then invited Chris Simcox, a Minuteman leader, to discuss border control — something Mr. Bush has not done and probably cannot do, having labeled them “vigilantes” in March — and called on Mexico to bulldoze Las Chepas, a staging ground for illegals and smugglers.

The moves are mostly symbolic: All they amount to immediately are a new homeland-security office, minor boosts for law enforcement and a fence to protect livestock in tiny Columbus, N.M. But as political theater, they are significant: They follow Mrs. Clinton’s remarks in December that “[I do] not think that we have protected our borders or our ports… we can do more and we can do better — I am, you know, adamantly against illegal immigrants… People have to stop employing illegal immigrants.”

Since then, Mrs. Clinton has turned back toward left-liberal orthodoxy. Last month, she gave a fawning speech to the National Council of La Raza in which she endorsed the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minorities (DREAM) Act, which would guarantee illegals in-state college-tuition rates and also grant amnesty to tens of thousands of illegals who graduate from U.S. high schools. The border-control hawkishness had vanished.

Mr. Richardson is no stranger to wedge issues, or to finessing policy as Mrs. Clinton did on the borders. He sells himself continuously as a tax-cutting Democrat, a notion the Cato Institute furthered in March when it gave him a “B” on its governors’ fiscal-performance test, the best score for a Democrat. (Some local Republicans strenuously disagree with Cato’s characterization, and maintain that Mr. Richardson’s record on taxes is mediocre.) He now appears to be looking to snag a “border-control” Hispanic Democrat label to help a possible bid for the 2008 presidential election, which is looking stronger every day.

Look for more Democrats to outflank President Bush on illegals and border control. If Bill Richardson can do it, so can the rest of the pack. Wouldn’t it be nice if a few Republican presidential hopefuls would saddle up and join the posse down Mexico way?

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