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By Blocking Immigration Reform, House Republicans Secure GOP Death Spiral

Republicans face two choices on immigration: support reform that annoys your base and creates millions of new Democrats, or block reform and further identify the party as whites-only.
 
 
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Over the past several years, as the Republican party has slid deeper into ideological dogmatism, naked legislative obstructionism, mindless partisanship and increasingly heartless social policy, it has largely spoken with one voice. Whether you're the Senate majority leader, the governor of Texas or a state senator in Florida, the message and the madness have been remarkably similar.

But immigration reform has proven to an exception to this general rule.

Throughout the 2012 presidential campaign, Republican candidates practically tried to outdo themselves in hurling invective at the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants – and the very idea of treating them with dignity. But after the 2012 election, a prominent party elite began singing a very different tune. Unable to accept the reality that the electorate rejected their conservative vision for America in re-electing Barack Obama, many Republicans have convinced themselves that their problem in 2012 was one of demographics – namely, the overwhelmingloss of the Hispanic vote.

They came up with an easy fix: immigration reform.

By passing reform and showing that Republicans don't really hate undocumented immigrants and that they were just joking about that whole "self-deporting" thing, the GOP could win back some support from Hispanic voters. Or so the story went.

It was an argument that quickly took hold among Republican elites, business supporters of the GOP who rely on cheap immigrant labor and presidential contenders like Marco Rubio. For members of Congresswith large Hispanic populations, the benefits of passing reform were obvious. As a result, last month, in a rare moment of bipartisan compromise, 13 Senate Republicans even voted in support of a measure that included a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Immigration reform, it seemed, stood a fighting chance of becoming law.

But then it ran headfirst into the place where good ideas, common sense and political outreach go to die – and parochialism reigns supreme: the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Since passing the Senate with a filibuster-proof majority, immigration reform has gone from being a patient with an uncertain prognosis to one that's about to get transferred to hospice care. And the reason is rather simple – House Republicans are much more interested in keeping their base of conservative white voters happy than they are in improving their standing among Hispanic voters.

For decades, the Republican party has been a party dominated by white voters. Although there were occasional moments of making inroads into the Hispanic and even black community, since 1968 Republicans have relied on an overwhelming share of the white vote as their political base. It was an often effective political strategy – in large measure, because the white share of the electorate was so large – and also because Republicans had long come to understand how they could effectively mine economic apprehension and resentment toward minorities, young people and, indeed, the whole process of cultural change to win national elections.

But with the country getting browner, and with college-educated whites and women embracing a more tolerant and secular Democratic party, the electoral options for Republicans have narrowed dramatically. Indeed, the 2012 election was, in key regards, a last gasp for Republicans as Mitt Romney took a page from the old Wallace/Nixon/Reagan/Bush playbook of trafficking in white anxiety – and failed miserably.

But that failure is one that predominately afflicts the presidential wing of the party and the dwindling number of Republicans in blue and purple states. For the congressional wing of the party, white voters are still their bread and butter. After all, most of them did just fine in the 2012 election.

If you're a House Republican in a solidly red district with few minority voters, not only do you not care about appealing to minority voters, but you're also deathly afraid of upsetting your white constituents – particularly, if those white constituents are none too fond of "illegal immigrants". Although one might understand the logic of having the national party appeal to Hispanic voters to win presidential elections, the perception that you are turning your back on white voters is a recipe for political disaster. And so, for rank-and-file GOP congressmen, the smart strategy has always been to block immigration reform.

Now, on the surface, this may seem like a selfish move and one that is focused on short-term political considerations rather than the long-term future of the party. Beyond the devastating hit to the hope of minimizing the party's disadvantage with Hispanic voters, blocking immigration reform will almost certainly do further harm to the GOP brand among other minority groups (African Americans, Asian Americans, Arab Americans), as well as socially tolerant whites.

The problem is that House Republicans have a powerful counter-argument: all of this might be true, but passing immigration reform won't do all that much to help.

They are probably right. Millions of Latino voters are not going to suddenly provide their appreciation – and votes – to Republicans for passing a bill championed by a Democratic president. Moreover, a bill that offers a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants – which is a key Democratic requirement – will create millions of potential new voters, many of whom will likely be casting a ballot for the party that shepherded immigration reform over the legislative finish line, rather than the one that was dragged there kicking and screaming.

Meanwhile, resentful white voters might be a shrinking part of the population, but there still are quite a few of them, particularly in red states. So long as they are willing to vote Republican – and keep the House in GOP hands – why risk upsetting them?

In a rare joint editorial in the Weekly Standard, Rich Lowry (editor of National Review) and Bill Kristol (editor of the Standard) made the point quite clearly:

The Republicans eager to back the bill are doing so out of political panic, 'I think Republicans realize the implications for the future of the Republican party in America if we don't get this issue behind us,' John McCain says. This is silly. Are we supposed to believe that Republican Senate candidates running in states such as Arkansas, North Carolina, Iowa, Virginia and Montana will be hurt if the party doesn't embrace Chuck Schumer's immigration bill?

Of course, there is a third option – which is having the House vote on the Senate bill and allowing those Republican members who accrue some political benefit from voting for an immigration reform measure to join with Democrats in passing the bill. But that would mean Speaker of the House John Boehner would have to agree to suspend the informal Hastert rule, which says that any legislation passing the House must have a majority of Republicans. For Boehner to take that step would further isolate him from his caucus; not surprisingly, it's a political step he doesn't want to take.

The irony is that the group of Republican politicians being most politically selfish is the group pushing reform. For someone like Rubio, who wants to run for president in three years and hopes to do so with a political base larger than the one Mitt Romney lost with, passing reform is far more about assisting his political future than it is about helping the GOP – because, in the short term, immigration reform will do far more than harm than good to his party. Indeed, one could look at Rubio's own fortunes to see why. As Micah Cohen pointed out at fivethirtyeight.com a few days ago, his standing has slipped among Republicans – and immigration appears to be one of the key contributing factors.

In reality, Republicans face two terrible choices on immigration: support reform that annoys your base and creates millions of new Democratic voters, or block reform and further identify yourselves as a whites-only party. In this case of deciding between a bad option and a terrible option, either way you choose, you lose. From that perspective, it's hardly surprising that House Republicans – when faced with such an unpalatable pair of possibilities – are choosing the path of least resistance – for them.

The irony of this situation for Republicans is that six years ago, when George W Bush was president, they had a chance to pass a comprehensive immigration reform measure, but conservative Republicans in the Senate blocked the bill (with a hand from Democrats). Had Bush signed that legislation, Republicans would have given themselves a fighting chance with Hispanic voters. Instead, they squandered the opportunity and very possibly have lost any chance of Latino support for a generation.

Whether they like it or not, Republicans have become a semi-permanently party of older, white people. Although that might help Republicans maintain control of the House for the foreseeable future, it is a path to long-term political decline for the GOP.