She blames the ethnic exodus to Democrats on callous GOP rhetoric that stereotyped Hispanics and addressed them as a monolith. “When you start talking about immigration in terms of ‘us versus them,’ you’re turning off the Hispanic community, even the documented Hispanic community,” Korn says. “It becomes an anti-Hispanic issue.”
But while Republicans universally accede to the urgency of fixing their message, such a consensus does not exist on the policy front. Amid renewed calls for pathways to citizenship, conservative hard-liners continue to question whether such concessions would reap any political dividends. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, author of Arizona’s controversial anti-immigration law, recalls what happened after Ronald Reagan signed an amnesty package in 1986:
Republicans won a significantly smaller percentage of the Hispanic vote in 1988 (30 percent) than they had in 1980 (35 percent) or 1984 (37 percent). For that reason, among others, Kobach believes that the “law and order” stance continues to be “the most advantageous position” for the GOP. “We can improve our outreach and expand and amplify our message ... without embracing amnesty,” he says. “We don’t have to abandon our principles to improve our message.” Still, more and more Republicans are questioning what their “principles” call for. For a party that stresses the value of family and community, prescribing “self-deportation” as your primary policy solution seems disingenuous.
Moving forward, Republicans would do well to reject the false choice between being the “pro-amnesty” party and the “self-deportation” party. A middle ground exists, one with serious policy solutions complementing a softer tone and a more realistic message. Whether Republicans discover it could very well determine their party’s political prosperity for generations.
Step 4: Go Big On Education
If immigration is the most dangerous policy issue facing Republicans, education is viewed as the most politically advantageous. Recent polling shows public dissatisfaction with public-school performance at an all-time high, and with Democrats hamstrung by their allegiance to teachers unions—one of the country’s truly commanding special interests—Republicans are ideally positioned to lead on an issue with an unlimited political upside. Even though education policy is forged primarily at the state and local level, Republicans are confident that the issue transcends ideology and resonates across demographic divides, and they appear poised to orchestrate a long-overdue offensive aimed at pushing issues such as school choice and teacher accountability to the forefront of the national political dialogue.
Artur Davis, the former House member from Alabama who last year defected from the Democratic Party to the GOP, captures the sentiment of many when he says of education reform, “No other issue even comes close in its potential for the Republican Party.” Across the board, party strategists are strikingly bullish on education, and mostly for the same two reasons. First, fighting for better schools reinforces the bedrock Republican principles of opportunity, competition, and family values; second, they believe Democrats are increasingly beholden to teachers unions and would never risk a conflict with that powerful constituency by spearheading serious reforms to union-patrolled school systems.
Buried beneath those strategic political layers, however, lies an abrasively populist argument about “fairness.” Education-reform advocates argue that America’s public schools are failing to facilitate social mobility among those who need it most: low-income students (many of them minority) living in urban environments with lower funding and less parental involvement than children in suburban school districts enjoy. “Education is the civil-rights issue of our era” was how Romney explained it on the campaign trail last year. That message resonates beyond the Republican base because it speaks to “upward mobility,” says Henry Barbour, a member of the Republican National Committee and another of the five Growth and Opportunity Project panelists.
Davis acknowledges the political advantage of fighting for equality in education and says that school-reform efforts, especially those concentrated in urban areas, could provide “a huge opening” for the GOP to make inroads with traditional Democratic constituencies. “If we can help low-income kids have access to private schools ... and create more accountability in public education,” Davis predicts, “it’s a winning message for Republicans all across the country.”
Step 5: Let the Libertarian Flag Fly
There’s been only one “revolution” attached to the Republican Party in the quarter-century since Ronald Reagan vacated the White House, and it wasn’t inspired by Romney or John McCain but rather by their unlikeliest rival—Ron Paul. Although he twice failed to claim his party’s presidential nomination, the recently retired House member served notice to the GOP establishment in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns that a new era of Republicanism was stirring beneath the political surface: a youthful insurrection defined by less government intrusion and more personal freedom.