We’ll be hearing all week about the minutiae of the U.S. Senate’s reconsideration of the so-called “grand bargain” on immigration reform: the amendments, the parliamentary maneuvers, the behind-the-scenes lobbying of Bush, Reid, Kennedy, Lott and others, to drag a couple of Republican votes across the line without losing prior supporters.
Maybe it will work, and maybe immigration reform will survive to face equally daunting challenges in the House and in a House-Senate conference report, enabling the various architects of the bargain to cheer themselves on their legislative wizardry in somehow cobbling together a successful product. It’s even possible that a bill will arrive on Bush’s desk that’s not completely abominable in its vote-buying and sausage-making details.
But the one certain thing is that the whole spectacle is going to cast a large spotlight on the nativist revival in the Republican Party, ruining Karl Rove’s dream of a GOP breakthrough in the dominant swing voter category of the future, Hispanic Americans. For all the talk about the immigration bill, it is often forgotten how and why the Bush administration got invested in this issue to begin with. To put it simply, immigration reform was the capstone of Rove’s entire base-plus strategy for building a Republican majority.
Remember that? The idea was to solidify and energize the GOP’s conservative base (and expand it somewhat by eradicating conservative Democrats) through polarization of the electorate, and then add key swing voters through three highly strategic initiatives, often marketed under the label of “compassionate conservatism”: the faith-based initiative, No Child Left Behind, and immigration reform.
Discussion of the (arguably minor) electoral legacy of the first two prongs of the “compassionate conservative” agenda can be discussed elsewhere. But friends and neighbors, the price tag for immigration reform is going to be high. No matter what ultimately happens in Congress, Hispanics and other recent immigrants are going to be treated to a high-profile orgy of nativist rage, day after day, week after week, and month after month, on the airwaves and (albeit in dog-whistle form) on the presidential campaign trail. On this latter front, remember that every significant GOP candidate other than the doomed John McCain has come out against anything like the Senate bill; in the critical competition to become the True Conservative Alternative to Rudy Giuliani, you can expect Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson to sound more like Tom Tancredo every day. And that doesn’t take into account the strong possibility that the legislation itself will wind up being obnoxious to its supposed immigrant beneficiaries, while inevitably failing to satisfy conservatives. At this point, I expect amendments in the Senate to include a requirement that immigrants seeking legal status stand on one foot and shout “Remember the Alamo!” in accent-free English.
In any event, as the immigration “debate” consumes the Senate this week, it’s time to start paying some attention to the long-range implications for both parties, especially among Hispanics. Public opinion research on Hispanic political attitudes is notoriously controversial thanks to a variety of definitional issues, but it is clear the GOP has already been losing support among Hispanics (arguably the most anti-Iraq-War segment of the U.S. population, as reflected in the unanimous Hispanic Caucus vote against the original war resolution) since 2004. And unless I’m just missing something, the political significance of Hispanics has not dramatically shrunk since Karl Rove first envisioned them as the crown jewel in an enduring Republican majority.