The immigration debate threatens to tear the Republican Party apart–not because of disagreements over the principle of immigration reform, but because of disagreements over strategy and tactics that may become insurmountable. The party leadership, believing that immigration reform will appeal to Hispanic voters, is attempting to impose its will on rank-and-file conservatives who object to current legislative proposals.
The recently-passed Senate immigration bill includes provisions for border security as well as the legalization of illegal aliens. Conservatives believe, however, that legalization must be contingent on border security, since the Obama administration has a record of refusing to enforce laws it does not like. Neither the so-called “triggers” in the bill, nor the new spending on border security, provide adequate guarantees, conservatives say.
Republican leaders concede these arguments, but argue that failing to pass any legislation now will simply make the problem worse. Privately, some of the same Republican leaders argue for passing the legislation for purely political reasons, in order to stop the attrition of Hispanic voters. The party’s recent internal “autopsy” insists bluntly that Republicans “must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.” Period.
Opponents of the bill point out that the party’s share of the Hispanic vote fell after Reagan’s amnesty of 1986, and that Mitt Romney would have lost in 2012 even with an overwhelming majority of the Hispanic vote. The grass-roots suspects the leadership’s real motivation is to reward special interest lobbies. The leadership, meanwhile, has joined Democrats in accusing conservative opponents of the bill of “nativism.”
Broadly speaking, however, there is no substantive disagreement among Republicans over immigration. There are a few groups that oppose any increase in immigration, but they are a small minority. The real fight is about whether Washington can be trusted. The same fault lines appear elsewhere–in the NSA scandal, for example, where grass-roots anger about the Bush-era program is driven by mistrust of Obama’s government.
These are tactical disagreements, but they are serious, and perhaps fatal. Members of the Republican elite are warning openly that they will leave if immigration reform does not pass. Some conservatives, notably Sarah Palin, have suggested that a third party may be an option. Meanwhile, the party is failing to exploit public outrage over a string of Obama administration scandals to build support for the 2014 midterm election effort.
What the party needs most is leadership that can reconcile the two factions. However, much of the Republican establishment is committed to asserting its control. In the midst of the immigration debate, House leaders are joining their Democratic colleagues in a nationwide tour, “Become America,” that will attempt to impress upon voters the need for immigration reform–even though only 6% of Americans say it is their top priority.
That marks a stark contrast from 2009, when Republican leaders reacted to the 2008 defeat by embarking on a “listening tour.” The result was that newly-motivated conservative activists, driven by the Tea Party, rallied behind a successful Republican election effort. In 2013, Republican leaders are no longer listening. They are lecturing–and raising money to protect moderate incumbents from conservative primaries.
The party’s grass-roots, whose favored leaders have abandoned them by embracing immigration reform (Marco Rubio) or accepting Obamacare’s Medicaid funding (Chris Christie, Rick Scott, and others), have no way of responding. They rally around junior Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, who have little power but put up a good fight. And they continue to adhere to conservative media, especially on talk radio and the Internet.
Republican leaders inside the Beltway increasingly resent the power of conservative media. They have begun to identify with time-worn Democratic criticisms–that talk radio is bigoted and shrill, that conservative bloggers are unreliable, that grass-roots heroes are “wacko” (to borrow from Sen. John McCain). They fail to understand the gap that conservative media fill–namely, the need for coherent, courageous opposition.
Opposition takes many forms in conservative new media. Rush Limbaugh celebrates opposition for its own sake: “What’s wrong with saying ‘no’?” he often asks. Mark Levin is about to offer a pro-active opposition agenda for constitutional reform in his forthcoming book, The Liberty Amendments. And Breitbart News offers a basis for political opposition by reporting news from an unabashedly conservative perspective.
The left created its own new forms of opposition, and opposition media, during the Bush era. The difference was that the anti-war movement and the “netroots” toppled Democrat leaders and purging the centrists. Conservatives have been more patient with the GOP establishment, but that patience is wearing thin. Those Republicans in Washington who are stoking the fight should try listening again–before it is too late.