Republican thinkers in this group look for inspiration to George W. Bush. In 2004, Bush won about two-fifths of Hispanics, the party’s best performance among that group since Reagan in 1984; he particularly gained among Latino evangelical Protestants. Schmidt, a senior White House adviser at that time, recalls, “We were having discussions in 2004, 2005 about how to grow that vote share to 50 percent. We believed that it ... was plausible that we could push that to 50 percent.”
Instead, the party has moved in the opposite direction, with John McCain in 2008 winning only about three in 10 Hispanics and polls showing Romney lagging even that level, despite the fact that the Hispanic unemployment rate has been in double digits every month of Obama’s presidency. Bush courted Latinos with an agenda that featured federally led education reform, government partnerships with religiously based charities, and, most important, support for a comprehensive immigration solution that included a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Since then, in the back-to-basics movement fueled by the tea party’s rise, the GOP has abandoned all of those policies. In particular, the party has reversed course on immigration. Amid a conservative backlash, Romney’s call for enforcement so stringent that it would pressure illegal immigrants to “self-deport” has succeeded Bush’s embrace of a pathway
This shift in tone and substance has produced something close to despair among the evangelical Hispanic leaders who spearheaded Bush’s breakthroughs. “The Republican primaries served as a reminder that the Republican Party suffers from cultural and ethnic myopia,” says the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “They were saturated with anti-immigrant rhetoric and a lack of viable Latino outreach. They failed by resurrecting the polarizing rhetoric that has alienated Hispanics.”
PRESSURES FOR CHANGE
Since the younger Bush’s presidency, the party’s right turn on immigration has evoked barely a peep of protest from the Bush-era advocates of a comprehensive solution. GOP strategists in this camp say that after the election, win or lose, they expect reform supporters to more forcefully reopen the debate. Many expect former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has denounced the party’s posture toward Hispanics as “stupid,” to lead such a charge. If Romney loses, economic conservatives, many of whom supported a pathway to citizenship under Bush, will likely argue that the party’s hard-line position on immigration allowed Obama to secure a second term and thus to implement spending, tax, health care, and regulatory policies anathema to Republicans.
One straw in that wind: In mid-October, leading antitax activist Grover Norquist delivered a pro-reform speech to a “Midwest summit” of immigration-rights activists. “Not only is it good policy to have dramatically more immigrants in the U.S. than we do today and a path for those who are here, it’s also good politics,” he said. One senior Washington-based business lobbyist similarly said that if party strategists make the electoral case for immigration reform, prominent corporate leaders would likely join the push. “If they lay down a foundation that says, ‘Hey, if we don’t get alongside of this, we are going to get run over for this, maybe for a generation,’ then, conceptually, people will understand it,” the lobbyist said.
But recasting the party’s position on immigration won’t be easy. Republicans now rely on lopsided margins from the portions of the white community most uneasy about the ongoing demographic change: older and blue-collar whites. In the most recent Apollo Group/National Journal Next America Poll, just under half of whites said they considered the growing number of newcomers from other countries a threat to traditional American values. These whites preferred Romney over Obama by nearly 9-to-1. (Obama, by contrast, drew almost three-fifths support among whites who did not view the demographic change as a threat.)
Fear of antagonizing such voters and their loud advocates in the conservative community helps explain why Romney and other Republicans kept their distance from the proposal by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to provide a legal status to some of the young illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children. Obama, instead, administratively instituted a similar plan, which has reinforced his overwhelming advantage among Hispanics. Roy Beck, the founder and CEO of NumbersUSA, a group that advocates for reduced immigration, promises even greater resistance to any Republicans who revive George W. Bush’s call to provide undocumented immigrants with a pathway to citizenship. “We have been fighting the George W. Bush people for 11 years; we regard them as enemies of American working families,” Beck says. “It’s not going to go anywhere, because it’s the same voices as in 2006 and 2007. These are the same old voices that got beaten [then].”