Smart Conservatives to GOP: It’s the Economy, Stupid

Smart Conservatives to GOP: It’s the Economy, Stupid

Smart Conservatives to GOP: It’s the Economy, Stupid

Despite what Republican strategists may say, Marco Rubio and a more moderate immigration policy are not a silver-bullet solution to the GOP’s racial demographic problem. 


While many conservative pundits are coming up with explanations for the election results that excuse them from having to make any ideological adjustments to win future elections, some are claiming that they can easily solve their problems. According to the most partisan members of Republican establishment, the GOP has a racial demographic problem, but all they need to do to solve it is to moderate their stance on immigration. Sharper conservative minds, however, recognize that women, young people and minorities have economic and ideological reasons for voting Democratic.

The most egregious and condescending example of the former line of thinking comes from Charles Krauthammer. In his Washington Post column last Thursday, Krauthammer wrote, “They lose and immediately the chorus begins. Republicans must change or die. A rump party of white America, it must adapt to evolving demographics or forever be the minority. The only part of this that is even partially true regards Hispanics.”

Implicit in Krauthammer’s column is the assumption that African-Americans cannot be persuaded to vote Republican, but that Republicans can win without them. That may be so, although he offers no statistical data to prove it. Nor does Krauthammer prove that Latinos are a much more persuadable group for the GOP.

Instead, Krauthammer simply relies upon some broad, ignorant stereotyping of Latinos. “They should be a natural Republican constituency: striving immigrant community, religious, Catholic, family-oriented and socially conservative (on abortion, for example),” he writes. “The principal reason they go Democratic is the issue of illegal immigrants.”

Krauthammer does not offer survey data to prove that Latinos are more “family-oriented” than anyone else. Nor does he explain what “family-oriented” means. That they are more likely to live with extended family? More likely to wait until marriage to have children? The former is true and the latter is not. And what does any of this have to do with political preferences? In fact, African-Americans and Asian-Americans are also more likely to live in a multigenerational household, and they are all more likely to vote Democratic than are whites. In light of that, it is difficult to even ascertain what Krauthammer thinks he is talking about, other than that he apparently assumes Democrats are so evil that surely they must hate their mothers. He should try to interviewing actual Democrats and Latinos sometime, as it might make his analysis a lot better-informed.

If by “family-oriented” Krauthammer means to imply that Latinos are especially hostile to gay marriage, he is wrong. Exit polls now show a majority of Latinos support gay marriage. It’s not even clear why Krauthammer thinks being Catholic would make Latinos vote Republican, since white and Latino Catholics are less likely to vote Republican than white or Latino Protestants. “Striving immigrant community,” could describe plenty of Democratic-leaning voting blocs, from Jews or Asian-Americans to Caribbean-Americans.

The rest of Krauthammer’s argument flows from his initial misperception. He writes:

For the [Republican] party in general, however, the problem is hardly structural. It requires but a single policy change: border fence plus amnesty. Yes, amnesty. Use the word. Shock and awe—full legal normalization (just short of citizenship) in return for full border enforcement.

I’ve always been of the “enforcement first” school, with the subsequent promise of legalization. I still think it’s the better policy. But many Hispanics fear that there will be nothing beyond enforcement. So, promise amnesty right up front. Secure the border with guaranteed legalization to follow on the day the four border-state governors affirm that illegal immigration has slowed to a trickle.
Imagine Marco Rubio advancing such a policy on the road to 2016. It would transform the landscape. He’d win the Hispanic vote. Yes, win it. A problem fixable with a single policy initiative is not structural. It is solvable.

Although he does not say it in so many words, Krauthammer clearly believes that Latinos are suckers for any candidate with a Spanish surname. Displaying no apparent understanding of the fact that Mexican-Americans in Colorado may not even feel they have much in common with a Cuban-American from Florida, Krauthammer issues a wild, foolish, patronizing prediction. Apparently he did not learn his lesson from wrongly predicting that Mitt Romney would win the election.

Just as Krauthammer presents no evidence that Latinos lean conservative, he does not prove that immigration is actually their biggest concern. He just makes these pronouncements as if he were omniscient. But, in fact, the evidence shows that Latinos are concerned about more than immigration, and that they are liberal on economic issues. Matthew Yglesias writes in Slate:

The best evidence available on Hispanic public opinion, a big election even poll from Latino Decisions and ImpreMedia, makes it clear that this is just a fairly liberal voting block. Just 12 percent of Latinos support a cuts-only approach to deficit reduction, and only 25 percent want to repeal Obamacare. Only 31 percent of Hispanics say they’d be more likely to vote for a Republican who supports the DREAM Act. This isn’t to say Latinos aren’t eager to see immigration reform, it’s just that the lion’s share have bigger reasons for rejecting the GOP.

This apparently has not occurred to Republican congressional leaders, or Fox News’s Sean Hannity, who have suggested since the election that the party should embrace comprehensive immigration reform, but have offered no other policy shifts.

Some conservatives, who are not as blinded by partisanship, understand that Republicans must offer an economic opportunity agenda if they are to appeal to Latinos.

“Hispanics are disproportionately poor and uninsured,” observes Ramesh Ponnuru in his Tuesday Bloomberg column. “And like people of other races in similar situations, they tend to have views on economic policy that align with the Democrats. In California, for example, Hispanics helped get Democratic Governor Jerry Brown’s tax increases approved on Election Day. A Republican Party that is associated with repealing Obama’s health-care legislation—and not with any alternative plan to get people health insurance—is going to get trounced among these voters.”

Ponnuru also explains that other demographic groups among whom Romney performed poorly, such as women and young voters, have generally liberal economic views. While many conservatives have simply blamed poor Republican performance among women and young people on anti-abortion extremism and hostility to gay rights, respectively, Ponnuru cautions that moving into the twentieth century on those issues won’t, by itself, make them appealing to many of those voters:

Men and women, whites and Hispanics, the young and the middle-aged: All of them want politicians to offer a practical agenda to create jobs, raise wages, and make health care and higher education more affordable. Most of them aren’t wedded to liberal answers on those issues. They will take them over nothing, and that’s what Republicans have been giving them.

Writing in The New York Times this week, Ross Douthat made a similar argument:

The problems that middle-class Americans faced in the late 1970s are not the problems of today. Health care now takes a bigger bite than income taxes out of many paychecks. Wage stagnation is a bigger threat to blue-collar workers than inflation. Middle-income parents worry more about the cost of college than the crime rate. Americans are more likely to fret about Washington’s coziness with big business than about big government alone.
Both shifts, demographic and economic, must be addressed if Republicans are to find a way back to the majority. But the temptation for the party’s elites will be to fasten on the demographic explanation, because playing identity politics seems far less painful than overhauling the Republican economic message….

Hispanics are not single-issue voters: they can be alienated by nativism, but they can’t just be won by the promise of green cards and open borders. (After Reagan signed an amnesty bill in 1986, the Republican share of the Hispanic vote fell in the next presidential election.) Latino voters are not, as conservative strategists often claim, “natural” Republican voters—notwithstanding their (moderate) social conservatism, they tend to lean leftward on economic issues, and to see government more as an ally than a foe. They can be wooed, gradually, if Republicans address their aspirations and anxieties, but they aren’t going to be claimed in one legislative pander.

Even National Review, in its post-election editorial, sounded similar notes. “Republicans from the top to the bottom of the ticket did little to make the case that conservative policies would make the broad mass of the public better off,” the editors complained. They went on to call for more sophisticated thinking about these challenges than that which is being displayed Krauthammer:

Most of the post-election discussion, we can predict, will dwell on the predictable demographic divides of sex, race, and age. Most of this conversation will be unproductive. Until conservatives devise a domestic agenda, and a way to sell it, that links small-government principles to attractive results, they are going to have a hard time improving their standing with women, Latinos, white men, or young people. And conservatives would be deeply unwise to count on the mere availability of charismatic young conservative officials to make up for that problem.

Surely it is comforting to Republicans to think that nominating Rubio—who they love and who is a doctrinaire conservative on everything but immigration—will magically solve their problems. But just as Democrats learned that they needed to adjust their policies to an ideologically shifting electorate, Republicans will too, or else they may find themselves in the wilderness for years to come.

Even if the GOP "evolved" on their anti-marriage equality stance, would it win them more votes? Check out Emily Douglas’s take here

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply-reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish everyday at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy