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the national interest

Republican Immigration Reform Is a Thing Now

People standing in the crowd react while watching election results displayed on a television during Mitt Romney's campaign election night event at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center on November 6, 2012 in Boston, Massachusetts. Voters went to polls in the heavily contested presidential race between incumbent U.S. President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Huddled masses.

A few weeks ago, President Obama told the Des Moines Register editorial board that if he wins reelection, it will be because Republicans alienated Latinos, which would make them suddenly willing to support immigration reform. That prediction appears to be coming true … right now. John Boehner is now saying, “comprehensive approach is long overdue, and I’m confident that the president, myself, others can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all.” Equally reliable indications of party sentiment come from such figures as Sean Hannity and Charles Krauthammer. Immigration reform really looks like something that could happen in 2013.

To understand why, you need to know how the various power centers within the party work. The GOP has traditionally opposed immigration reform because most of its voters staunchly oppose illegal (or, in some cases, even legal) immigration. Immigration was actually the No. 1 concern of tea party activists. But Republican elites barely care about it, and many of them actually would like to increase immigration. The elites were willing to go along with what the base wanted, up to the point where this position poses a threat to the party’s ability to win national elections. The politics of immigration reform will center around the Washington leadership and business wing of the party attempting to tamp down a revolt among activists.

A second debate going on within the party centers on whether the GOP’s problem with Latino voters is entirely about immigration policy. The most convenient argument for Republicans is that it is — they can move left on immigration, change nothing else whatsoever, and watch the Latino votes roll in. Krauthammer today:

A problem fixable with a single policy initiative is not structural. It is solvable. …

There’s no need for radical change. The other party thinks it owns the demographic future — counter that in one stroke by fixing the Latino problem. Do not, however, abandon the party’s philosophical anchor.

But here is the problem. Latinos aren’t voting Democratic solely because of immigration. Latino voters have generally liberal views on the whole role-of-government issues that divide the parties. The even-faster-growing Asian-American vote is likewise just broadly out of step with conservatism.

What conservatives are in denial about is that ideological conservatism largely appeals to white people qua white people. Matthew Yglesias has written extensively about the work of Donald Kinder and Cindy Kam, which shows that white ethnocentrism is powerfully correlated with opposition to spending on the poor, as well as to support for spending on universal programs. The Republican party platform of preserving every dollar of social insurance benefits for current retirees while slashing spending on Medicaid, food stamps, childrens’ health insurance, and Obamacare is perfectly toned to appeal to white voters on ethnic grounds.

This isn’t to say the policies are inherently racist. Let me be clear about this: There are perfectly non-racial intellectual grounds to believe in small government conservatism. There are even non-racial grounds for believing the socialism-for-me-but-not-for-thee platform of the Republican party. But the actual political fact on the ground is that there aren’t many Wall Street Journal editorial page readers out there in America. And historically, the New Deal ran aground only when white voters came to see it as transferring money from them to the undeserving (nonwhite) poor. No modern precedent can be found for a small government conservatism that attracts majority support without relying heavily on white racial resentment for its votes.

Now, I don’t think conservatism is doomed to perpetual failure. Short-term events matter in politics far more than underlying ideology. A huge scandal, a bungled war, a return to recession, or the like could easily restore the GOP to power despite its ideological baggage. But conservatives do have a serious racial problem that strikes at their ideological core. The New Deal consensus started to collapse in the mid-sixties when large numbers of white voters saw government as taking from us and giving to them. As there are more and more them’s and fewer and fewer us’s, the political forces that drove Nixon and Reagan and Bush to power grows progressively weaker. Republicans need to modify their stance on immigration, but their deeper need is more profound: a way to sell limited-government conservatism that has a broader appeal than sublimated white Christian identity politics.

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Photo: Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images