Republicans Are Missing the Point on Immigration Reform

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A couple of weeks ago I speculated about the conventional wisdom that the Republican Party badly needs immigration reform to pass:

I wonder just how many House leaders are truly convinced that the party is doomed without the Hispanic vote anyway? I have a sense that a lot of them are in the process of convincing themselves that this is just a bunch of elite Beltway hooey.

Today, Benjy Sarlin puts some meat on this speculation, reporting that a growing number of mainstream conservatives are starting to move away from the belief that Republicans are in a demographic death spiral if they can’t win more Hispanic votes. Instead, they want to focus on winning a bigger and bigger share of the white vote:

At the moment, the anti-immigration argument appears to be gaining converts fast. On election night, Fox News anchor Brit Hume called the “demographic” threat posed by Latino voters “absolutely real” and suggested Mitt Romney’s “hardline position on immigration” may be to blame for election losses. On Monday, Hume declared that argument “baloney.” The Hispanic vote, he said, “is not nearly as important, still, as the white vote.”

Sean Hannity, a reliable bellwether on the right, has been on a similar journey since the fall. He announced days after President Obama’s re-election that he had “evolved” on immigration reform and now supported a “path to citizenship” in order to improve relations with Hispanic voters. Hannity has now flipped hard against the Senate’s bill.

….A new view on the right is taking hold: Romney lost because he didn’t go after whites hard enough…. Conservative commentators are convincing themselves they can find a few million more whites tucked between the couch cushions—at least enough for one more election. Two columnists have been particularly influential in this regard. Sean Trende at Real Clear Politics has argued that census data shows about 5 million mostly poor and rural white voters were “projected” to vote in 2012 based on population growth and past turnout but didn’t show up to the polls. Byron York, a columnist at the Washington Examiner, published a related piece noting that Romney would have lost even if he had racked up a majority of Latino voters.

Is this plausible? I doubt it. Sure, Republicans can reduce the non-white vote a bit by doubling down on their voter suppression strategy, and it might even work for a while. They might also be able to find some issues that directly boost the white vote by a percentage point or two. But look: Barack Obama almost certainly lost at least a few percentage points of the white vote because he’s black. In 2016, Democrats will have a white candidate, and that will give them a small leg up with the white vote right off the bat. It really seems unlikely that any kind of white outreach program can be so fabulously successful that it will make up for that.

But in a way, this doesn’t matter, because I think Republicans are missing the point. Conn Carroll, for example, tweets this response to Sarlin’s story:

there is no “growing” argument that “GOP should give up on Latino voters.” only the realization that pandering through amnesty won’t work.

In a narrow sense, it’s probably true that Republicans won’t get much credit if immigration reform passes. But that’s not what matters. What matters is that it eliminates immigration as an issue for Democrats. Democrats get tremendous mileage by demonizing Republicans and winning ever greater shares of the Hispanic vote. Once immigration reform passes, they can’t do that. There will always be smaller issues out there, but they just won’t have the same impact as immigration reform. Taking that off the table sucks the air out of the Dem balloon and gives Republicans a better chance of setting the terms of the political debate, both within and without the Hispanic community. That’s why it’s a net winner for them, not because they’ll get “credit” for allowing it to pass.

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