For a couple of nano seconds after the Republicans' historic shellacking last week it seemed that finally wisdom was dawning and they were beginning to realize that immigrant-bashing was not a winning tactic. After Romney lost every Hispanic-rich swing state—including Florida, the home of the traditionally conservative Cuban Americans—
Sean Hannity, who has been saying "no-way, Jose" to any form of legalization claimed that he had "evolved on immigration" and now favored a pathway to citizenship for illegals. Charles Krauthammer scolded Romney for running to the right of Rick Perry and suggested that the party consider supporting partial amnesty—and, yes, he used the term, loudly and proudly—to stop alienating Latinos. Likewise, George Will, who has previously advocated getting rid of birthright citizenship for children of immigrants, expressed surprise that "only 70 percent of Latinos opposed Romney" given his pledge to get Latinos to "self deport" if elected.
But antipathy toward immigration runs deep in the party and for every conservative pundit counseling sanity, there is at least one advocating insanity. Mark Levin went into a rage on TV, repeatedly calling Krauthammer and others "stupid"—an oddly juvenile epithet from someone of Levin's richly bilious vocabulary. Rush Limbaugh also counseled against the folly of thinking that the GOP can woo Latinos with amnesty when what attracts them to Democrats is welfare and "free stuff." "You can't beat Santa Claus with amnesty."
But most disappointing of all was the New York Times' conservative commentator Ross Douthat, usually a rational voice. He acknowledged that the GOP needs to adjust to new demographic realities in which whites will be a plurality by 2050. But he maintained that Latinos are not single-issue voters who would flock to the GOP just because it changed its position on amnesty. So Republicans shouldn't play identity politics to woo them. What should it do instead? Evidently, play identity politics with white males who the GOP would alienate by moving too "leftward" on immigration.
Douthat—and others—happen to be right that Latinos are not single-issue voters. After all, Hispanic families have to eat and live just like everyone else and hence are just as concerned about unemployment, recession, crashing home values and soaring food prices. That said, their ability to keep their families intact and earn a decent livelihood is inextricably tied to the immigration system. In 2009, before President Obama embarked on his deportation binge, about 9 million Latinos lived in mixed-status families in which someone was "out of status" or illegal. Hence, immigration is a first-order concern for many of them. To be sure, offering these folks amnesty and other reforms won't guarantee GOP support—especially if Republicans do so grudgingly. But what it will do is not cause the vast majority of them to reject the party—and its platform—out of hand in the future. And that might be enough for the GOP to get another 15 percent Latinos to switch and muster the 40 percent it needs to become competitive again about what George Bush got to win re-election.
But Limbaugh claims that Latino support is not worth it because it would come at the price of diluting the GOP's commitment to limited government ideals. That, however, is profoundly delusional. It is true that immigrants not nurtured in the lap of a limited government philosophy don't have a pre-programmed hostility to big government. But neither do Americans who (sorta) are—otherwise a majority wouldn't want protection from free trade because it allegedly threatens their jobs.
Indeed, what Latinos witness is not a clash between the GOP's limited government ideology and Democrats' Big Government ideology. It is between the GOP's version of Big Government and Democrats' version of Big Government.
The GOP's version, from the standpoint of Latinos, involves border guards and fences, Arizona-style "your papers please" laws and E-verify mandates and fines against employers. By contrast, the liberal version involves extending instate college tuition, emergency health care and access to public schools as well as workplace protections. Both Republicans and Democrats depart from limited government, but the GOP in the direction of inhumanity and liberals in the direction of humanity. GOP's Big Government oppresses them and the liberal Big Government (at least on the surface) is benign if not benificent and helps them. This difference in the two visions of Big Government—oppressive vs. benevolent—is why not just Latinos but other more affluent minorities—including Asian Americans and Jews who no one can accuse of "mooching" for "free goodies"—also overwhelmingly vote liberal.
So what should Republicans do?
They should actually reassert their commitment to a genuine limited government agenda and the first step in it would be to pass immigration reform in which the government ceases to be an obstacle to the aspirations of Americans and foreigners regardless of whether they want to do business together or make love and have babies.
Despite the hopeful statements by Krauthammer and Hannity et al, the initial auguries that the GOP will recalibrate its approach don't look so good. Republicans are fielding as the chair of the House Judiciary Panel Virginia's Bob Goodlatte, long an implacable foe of the DREAM Act. Even worse, rank-and-file Republicans remain as wedded to a hardline position as ever despite last week's election losses. As The Daily Beast's Laura Colarusso notes, for negotiating with Democrats on immigration reform in 2010, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham will likely be rewarded with a Tea Party primary challenge when he's up for reelection in 2014.
The GOP has just started rethinking its position on immigration after a decade or more of wingnuttery and so likely needs time to hammer out something sensible. For its own sake one hopes that it does so. Or, else, brace itself for more walloping at the polls in the future.