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Column: George W. Bush was Right on Immigration

George W. Bush was president of the United States less than five years ago. You’d never know it by listening to Republican politicians or talking with GOP party strategists — all of whom seem perfectly willing to simply erase Bush from their collective memory. (It’s a sort of political version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.)

It’s easy to understand why. The United States’ involvement in the war in Iraq coupled with Bush’s mishandling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the fiscal collapse left his approval ratings — and the broader Republican brand — deeply damaged by the time he left office in early 2009.

But, erasing Bush’s memory entirely overlooks the fact that in one very important way the 43rd president of the United States was well ahead of his time. Bush was an early advocate within the GOP for increasing the party’s outreach to the Hispanic community and, had his party followed where their president was trying to lead, it might not find itself faced with such a daunting political challenge in courting that bloc of voters today.

Bush came up in politics in Texas where, even 15 years ago, Latinos were transforming the state and its electorate. He — and his senior team including the likes of Karl Rove — understood the looming (and growing) political power of Hispanics innately and worked very aggressively during his 2000 and 2004 campaigns to court Latinos.

Bush won 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000 and 43 percent four years later, a high water mark for a Republican presidential nominee since exit polling began in 1972.

Repeatedly during his presidency, Bush tried to reform the immigration system in hopes of proving to Hispanics that they could find a home in the GOP. In 2004 and 2007 Bush attempted to push for changes on immigration, and both times was foiled by opposition from his party’s conservative wing.

Had Republicans — led by Bush — found a way to get behind even some sort of small reform of the immigration system back in 2004 or 2007, it’s quite possible that they would have found themselves in a very different position when it came to solving their Hispanic problem. (Heck, they might not even have a “Hispanic problem” at all.)

They didn’t. John McCain, once a leading voice for immigration reform, abandoned his position in order to save his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. (McCain’s journey on immigration reform is fascinating in its own right.) It worked as conservatives held their nose and voted for him in the primary but, not surprisingly, backfired in the general election as McCain won just 31 percent of Hispanic voters — a double-digit dip from Bush’s performance four years earlier.

In 2012, Republicans fell even further with Hispanic voters as Mitt Romney, like McCain trying to protect his ideological right flank in a primary, advocated “self deportation” as the answer to the problem of the 11 million people in the country illegally. Romney won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote last November, the lowest share since Bob Dole took 21 percent among that voting bloc in 1996.

Now, to be clear, simply following George W. Bush’s lead on immigration reform would not have been a panacea for the Republican Party. The likes of former Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo and current Iowa Rep. Steve King would still have been around and taking positions — loudly and repeatedly — that would threaten to erase any gains Bush might have made.

But, what’s clear is this: In the 2004 election, Bush demonstrated that a Republican candidate could compete for the Hispanic vote. (The 2016 GOP presidential nominee would kill to win 43 percent of Latinos.) And, had Bush been able to deliver a policy solution or two on immigration that appealed to Hispanics, the party’s path to winning favor with this increasingly crucial voting bloc might have been very different and far less rocky.

Republicans would do well then to remember that while Bush hurt the party politically in a variety of ways, he also tried to help it. They chose not to listen.

Chris Cillizza writes for The Washington Post.