The GOP’s Demographic Dare
If the Republican Party supports immigration reform, will Hispanics ever support the GOP?
But how do you get there? Since Sunday night, when the Octogang’s deal leaked to Politico, we haven’t heard much from the demography-is-destiny Republicans. They believe, for cultural reasons, that Hispanic immigrants are natural Democratic voters. There is a theory of “makers” and “takers,” and no matter how many calluses they get picking lettuce, the new arrivals go into column two.
The most honest Republican member of Congress’ demographic group is Rep. Lou Barletta. He can trace his success to the mid-2000s immigration wars. He ran Hazleton, Pa., and pushed through the Illegal Immigration Relief Act.* It was all enforcement—fines on landlords who leased to illegal immigrants and denial of licenses to business that employed them. In 2010, he won a seat in Congress. In 2011, it was gerrymandered to protect him.
“Anyone who believes that they're going to win over the Latino vote is grossly mistaken," Barletta told Colby Itkowitz, Washington reporter for an Allentown paper. "The majority that are here illegally are low-skilled or may not even have a high school diploma. The Republican Party is not going to compete over who can give more social programs out. They will become Democrats because of the social programs they'll depend on.”
In 2006 and 2007, the Barlettas of the GOP combined this argument with two bogeymen: wan enforcement and a new surge of immigrants. Neither of those fears retains their old power. Border fencing, deportations, and border agents are all at or above the levels promised during the Bush era’s failed immigration bills. And the Mexican economy simply isn’t weak enough to inspire the old pace of border-crossings, something the president obliquely bragged about in his Tuesday immigration speech.
That leaves Republicans with the demographic dare. And like Hannity, their opinion leaders just aren’t really sure about the risks, not like they were before 2012. Last week, before the Octogang’s framework came out, Sen. Marco Rubio called into Mark Levin’s radio show. Levin, a conservative attorney who sees tyranny behind every White House rose bush, was brought into the radio industry by Hannity. Before he talked to Rubio, he swore that the GOP’s immigration position had “nothing to do” with their defeat. Post-Rubio, he had been healed. “We have de facto amnesty right now,” said Levin, quoting Rubio’s spin. “When he said it, it set a light bulb off. Maybe I am a little slow.”
On Tuesday, before Obama’s speech, Rubio repeated the trick. The cynicism was rising, because the president was about to speak—to promise his own bill if the Octogang failed—and Republicans like Flake warned that Obama could “poison the well.” But Limbaugh went easy, too. Instead of assuming that the new immigrants were lazy, natural takers, he asked Rubio if they were more industrious, more American. “Are conservatives stuck in the past about misjudging why immigrants are drawn to America today?”
“The folks I interact with,” said Rubio, “when they get to this country and they open their own business, they see the cost of government firsthand.”
For a couple of minutes, on-air, two Republicans who wanted the party to win again agreed that they could convert the new arrivals. “What you are doing is admirable and noteworthy," Limbaugh said. "You are recognizing reality.”
Correction, Jan. 30, 2013: This article originally misspelled the town name of Hazleton. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.