Blaming Tuesday’s defeat solely on Mitt Romney would be a mistake. It’s true that he wasn’t a perfect candidate, but there’s no such thing as a perfect candidate. It’s true, too, that he’s proven flexible as to his policy positions; but the (Groucho) Marxian line that “if you don’t like my principles, I have others” is widely applicable to politicians. The question for conservatives and Republicans is what, if any, adjustments might be needed to the principles we ask aspiring politicians to pretend to hold.
The standard GOP lines on foreign policy, spending, the economy, and abortion were undoubtedly important in Tuesday’s defeat in a way that immigration wasn’t, but my bailiwick is immigration. This is also the area where the GOP establishment leaps at any opportunity to slip its leash, having only grudgingly submitted to the views of its own voters. Even before the results were in, the establishment’s argument was that this defeat is proof that the Republican party has to embrace amnesty and unlimited immigration (“comprehensive immigration reform”) to get enough of the Hispanic vote to remain electorally viable. Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick have a book coming out on this very topic in March, presumably having figured that whatever the electoral outcome, they’d point to it as an excuse to push for open borders. The temptation for the Republican elite to go in this direction will be great, as it provides a convenient way of avoiding reconsideration of other parts of the GOP message more in need of a tune-up.
On the surface it sounds plausible enough. Obama got 71 percent of the Hispanic vote on Tuesday against Romney’s strong pro-enforcement (but also pro–mass immigration) stand, up from his 67 percent against “Amnesty John” McCain (though the margin of error is large enough that the difference may not even be statistically significant). This is a strong showing for Obama, obviously, but it’s still a small shift in a relatively small part of the electorate — and not a shift obviously due to immigration.
Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Cuban-Americans, and so on are a heterogeneous group concerned with the same kinds of issues as are other Americans, with immigration pretty far down the list. However, as a group they are poorer than average, pay less in taxes, use more in government services, benefit from affirmative action, and are less likely to have health insurance — so the Democrats’ message of big government and racial quotas is going to resonate with them, as it always has. (Remember, Jimmy Carter got 76 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 1980 Reagan landslide, before immigration was much of a political issue.) Even Hispanic Republicans are to the left of white Democrats, so that embracing the Bush/McCain/Kennedy approach to immigration just isn’t going to win over lots of Hispanic voters, and will lose a much larger number of votes from whites. As the Manhattan Institute’s Ted Frank has written:
Hispanics are voting on economic issues, not on immigration, and that isn’t going to shift [them] to Republican ideals any time soon. Any political gains the Republicans can make by yielding on immigration are going to be more than offset by the adverse effect on the economy for the lower middle class and the increased number of Democratic voters.
But, the open-borders Right will say, Bush got 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004! Actually, he got more like 38 to 40 percent, because the national exit-poll results were simply incorrect. But even so, that’s better than Romney (or McCain) got and has become the benchmark figure for the pro-amnesty Right. But even if Romney had gotten a similar share of the Hispanic vote, he still would have lost the election. It might have made a difference in Florida and Nevada, but not in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, or Virginia. There are deep problems with the GOP brand that have nothing to do with immigration.