Republicans Begin Pivot on Immigration

Republicans Begin Pivot on Immigration

Republicans Begin Pivot on Immigration

The Republican answer to the DREAM Act—the Achieve Act—still falls short of what the GOP needs to win over voters. 


US Senator Jon Kyl speaks during a Republican Party election night event in Phoenix, Arizona, November 6, 2012. Reuters/Joshua Lott

Republicans took some of their first tentative steps towards reinventing their party on Tuesday, when Senators Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) introduced an alternative to the DREAM Act. The bill, called the Achieve Act, would allow immigrants brought to the United States as children without documentation to stay in the country, but it would not provide a path to citizenship. Instead, recipients could apply for a series of visas, first to attend college or serve in the military, then to work.

Unfortunately for Republicans, this measure—even if it became law—falls short of what the GOP needs to do if it is to win over growing electoral demographic groups.

It won’t pass anyway. Hutchison and Kyl are both retiring and the bill is unlikely to be passed in the lame-duck Congress’s few remaining weeks. Kyl says that the bill will be moved forward by sympathizers in the GOP such as Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Marco Rubio (R-TX), even though neither Rubio nor McCain has signed on as a cosponsor.

It’s easy to see the political imperative that is weighing upon Republicans. In the wake of their electoral defeat, many have determined that they must do better among Latinos. According to exit polls, Latinos made up 10 percent of the electorate this year, and only 29 percent of them voted for Mitt Romney. “The trajectory of the gains in the total numbers of Latino voters is only matched by the remarkable tin-ear the Republican Party has for this community,” write pollster John Zogby and former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz in the Huffington Post. “If conservatism keeps its demonization of immigrants and immigration reform as one of its pillars, look for the GOP to put itself out of business.”

This opinion is shared by political strategists on the right. Glenn Bolger of Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican political research firm, notes:

Romney won many of the groups that are generally considered to be the ones to decide elections—Independents, white women (by double digits), middle income, and voters age 40+. Mitt Romney put together a coalition that just eight years ago would have won the presidential election….

So, if you win the swing groups but lose the election, that means the Democrats have a clear home field advantage. There are more Democrats. That underscores that we have to do better as a party with Hispanics. It will be hard to push white voter support for Democrats lower than 39% (which is all Obama got). Thus, to have a chance, Republicans have to appeal to Hispanics.

It’s simple math, but it’s hard to do. We have to start today.

Supporting immigration reform could also help Republicans soften their image among young voters. Obama dominated among voters 18–29 years old, winning them 60 to 36. According to the Pew Research Center, “In four of the key battleground states, Obama may not have won without the youth vote.” Only 58 percent of voters under 30 years old are non-Hispanic whites. Eighteen percent are Latino.

But some conservatives question the inference that Republicans should try to woo Latinos. Last week Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute argued that Republicans are wrong to assume that Latinos are latent conservatives who will vote Republican as soon as the GOP embraces amnesty for undocumented immigrants. As Murray observes, the survey data does not show Latinos to be more conservative than the general public.

Then he throws in a rather startling digression that unintentionally illustrates a major part of the GOP’s problem:

I can understand why people think Latinos are natural conservatives. Just about every Latino with whom I come in contact is hard-working and competent. I don’t get into discussions with them about their families and religion, but they sure look like go-getting, family-values Americans to me. But note the caveat: “with whom I come in contact.” There’s a huge selection artifact embedded in that caveat—I always come in contact with Latinos because they are on a work crew that’s doing something at my house or office, or at my neighbors’ houses. That’s the way that almost all Anglos in the political chattering class come in contact with Latinos. Of course they look like model Americans.

A party that is controlled by out-of-touch old white men like Murray is doomed to seem, at best, condescending to the minorities it hopes to attract.

Murray went on to write a follow-up piece this week, engaging in exactly the same kind of broad, ignorant stereotyping that he warns conservatives to avoid when discussing Latinos. He argues that Asian-Americans—whom he refers to as “Asians,” even though he is talking about American citizens of Asian ancestry, not residents of Asia—would be Republicans were it not for social conservatives. “It’s not just that the income, occupations, and marital status of Asians should push them toward the right,” Murray writes. “Everyday observation of Asians around the world reveal them to be conspicuously entrepreneurial, industrious, family-oriented, and self-reliant. If you’re looking for a natural Republican constituency, Asians should define ‘natural.’”

Like Charles Krauthammer, Murray throws around the term “family-oriented” without defining it, much less proving that it is true of the group in question. (Krauthammer was making the argument about Latinos that Murray finds unpersuasive.) Most irritatingly, Murray assumes, as Krauthammer does, that being “industrious, family-oriented, and self-reliant” should make one a conservative. Why is that? How does opposing health coverage for the unemployed encourage the industrious to leave her job and start a business? What exactly are the Republicans’ pro-family policies? Their opposition to federal funding for education and Head Start? Their desire to cut funding for children’s health insurance, housing and food? Those policies make it harder, not easier, to have children.

Is it perhaps that Republicans oppose family planning and legal equality for the families of gays and lesbians? No, Murray is actually arguing that it is precisely those views that have turned Asian-Americans against Republicans. He writes:

Something has happened to define conservatism in the minds of Asians as deeply unattractive, despite all the reasons that should naturally lead them to vote for a party that is identified with liberty, opportunity to get ahead, and economic growth. I propose that the explanation is simple. Those are not the themes that define the Republican Party in the public mind. Republicans are seen by Asians—as they are by Latinos, blacks, and some large proportion of whites—as the party of Bible-thumping, anti-gay, anti-abortion creationists. Factually, that’s ludicrously inaccurate. In the public mind, except among Republicans, that image is taken for reality. [Emphasis in original]

Murray does not explain why it is “ludicrously inaccurate” to view Republicans that way. They are, in fact, overwhelmingly opposed to gay rights and abortion rights. This is not an ideological assertion, it is a mere statement of fact. The Republican platform calls for banning all abortions, and every Republican senator voted to block the Employment Non-discrimination Act. As for being “Bible-thumping” creationists, let’s look at this report from Gallup in 2007:

The majority of Republicans in the United States do not believe the theory of evolution is true and do not believe that humans evolved over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. This suggests that when three Republican presidential candidates at a May debate stated they did not believe in evolution, they were generally in sync with the bulk of the rank-and-file Republicans whose nomination they are seeking to obtain.…

The data from several recent Gallup studies suggest that Americans’ religious behavior is highly correlated with beliefs about evolution. Those who attend church frequently are much less likely to believe in evolution than are those who seldom or never attend. That Republicans tend to be frequent churchgoers helps explain their doubts about evolution.

What Murray presumably means to say is that he and his friends are not socially conservative. Republican elites often assert that their party is more cosmopolitan and tolerant than it actually is, because they and their cohort are. They’re in it for the tax cuts and the wars that poorer people’s children will fight. Well, good for them, but that has nothing to do with the views of most Republican voters or elected officials.

Murray does not raise this point, but adopting a more moderate stance on immigration might help Republicans among Asian-Americans as much as among Latinos. Pundits often note the anti-immigrant California Proposition 187 as a watershed moment in turning Latinos against the GOP. It was also crucial in turning Asian-Americans off from Republicans.

The problem, though, that Murray and other Republicans and conservatives are unwilling to address is that economic conservatism is as much to blame for their woes as immigration or social issues. Polls show that young people and non-white voters are more liberal on the role of government in the economy. But since economic royalism is the reason they are Republicans in the first place, conservative elites such as Murray cannot fathom actually moderating their stances on that. Until they do, though, they may find themselves unable to win over any of these demographics, stereotypes about entrepreneurialism and family-orientation notwithstanding.

A group of Tea Partiers have another explanation for Mitt Romney’s loss: voter fraud.

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