The fight over immigration reform is a fascinating legislative drama on its own terms: a vast, dysfunctional realm of policy has suddenly opened itself up to the possibility of a comprehensive remedy that was utterly impossible not long ago. But there is a secondary drama at work: The fight is also about the efforts of Republican elites to wrest control of their party back from the activist base.
Recall that, in the wake of the 2012 elections, the GOP faced a wide array of political vulnerabilities. In the long run, the Latino (and other nonwhite) share of the electorate is growing, and forcing the party to broaden its cultural appeal. But immigration policy is not the only element of the Republican alienation from minority voters, who have left-of-center views on a wide range of issues. And the nonwhite vote is not the GOP’s only liability. Its biggest Achilles' heel is its commitment to low taxes on the rich, which is unpopular, at the expense of support for social programs that are highly popular. This could be seen in all kinds of polls, but especially ones that showed President Obama holding a massive advantage over Mitt Romney in favoring the middle class versus the rich.
The Republican party’s strategic decision thus far has been to avoid any rethinking of its economic program at all, and instead try to woo Latino voters by supporting immigration reform. This is a choice that, whatever its merits, makes lots of sense to Republican elites and very little sense to Republican voters. In their close study of the tea party, Theda Skocpol, Vanessa Williamson, and John Coggin found that concern about illegal immigration ranked at the top of the movement’s list. Republican voters do like tax cuts, but they like them a lot less than their party leaders do. Most Republican voters opposed extending the Bush tax cuts on income over $250,000.
There’s nothing new here about the gulf between the Republican electorate and the Republican elite. The party’s obsession with tax cuts for the rich is driven entirely by its donor class and Washington leaders.
What’s different is that the Republican leaders have always wrapped their tax cuts über alles agenda into a generalized conservatism. Now they have decided to pitch overboard a piece of the agenda, and they are disposing of something their voters care about a lot, while holding onto something the voters would be happy to let go.
And so, among other things, the party’s ability to make this decision stick will be a test of its ability to wrest control from the activists. One constant and somewhat unusual dynamic of the last few years is the degree to which Republican base activists — grassroots ones, not the ones based in Washington — were able to bend the party to their will. They repeatedly nominated ultraconservatives in Senate races over Establishment favorites. They dragged out the presidential campaign and forced Romney to endorse draconian positions, especially on immigration, that hurt him dearly.
The concerted campaign, spearheaded by Marco Rubio, to make immigration reform acceptable is the biggest test case of whether the party leadership, such as it is, can bend the activists to their will. It won’t be the last.