The fallout from the Heritage Foundation’s immigration reform study has developed into a watershed moment for the prospects of passing a bill. The release of the study prompted a fierce backlash from proponents of reform, which compounded when Dylan Matthews reported that Jason Richwine, a co-author of the study, wrote a dissertation arguing, “No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.”
Heritage has found itself in a public relations crisis, and announced Richwine was leaving the conservative think-tank. Right-wing blogger and anti-anti-racism activist Michelle Malkin called the treatment of Richwine a “crucifixion,” which seems perfectly appropriate. According to Heritage, the crucifixion was entirely voluntary (“he’s decided to resign from his position.”)
It seems to me that Richwine made a tragic error in his chosen field of study. Both the financial structure of the conservative think-tank world and the unique branding advantages of his last name should have pushed him into the safer field of denouncing the excessive tax burden on the well-to-do, the largest and safest sub-specialty within the conservative and libertarian think-tank and pseudo-think-tank world.
The practical fallout of the episode will play out in two ways. First, it has demonstrated that the balance of power within the party has shifted. The pro-business, libertarian wing of the GOP has held the whip hand for many years now. But its control always relied on setting the party’s agenda subtly, directing its political capital into anti-tax, anti-regulatory policies, and paying as little attention to social issues as possible.
Republican elites were hesitant to rile up social conservatives directly and explicitly. When the base revolted against immigration reform in 2007, the GOP elites had no responses but to cover their face and try to absorb the beating. In this instance, though, elites have actually struck back and inflicted real harm on the social conservatives. There will be a fight, but both sides now understand that it will have two sides, not merely endless placating of nativists.
Second, Richwine’s quote is exactly the sort of political nightmare Republicans hope to put behind them by passing some kind of reform. The party’s dilemma is that immigration represents a nagging, unresolved issue in American politics. Every time it is discussed, conservative Republicans remind Latinos why they hate Republicans. The shrewder Republicans grasp that passing immigration reform is not a sufficient condition for winning a respectable share of the Latino vote, but it is a necessary condition.
If the Gang of Eight bill fails, Richwine’s comments will continue to linger and recirculate in the Latino-American media until immigration reform finally passes. Republicans will never be able to convince Latinos they killed the bill for any reason other than racial animus. The need to put this behind them is growing desperate.