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Can Republicans Shape the Agenda?

Not without winning in 2016.

Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By JAY COST
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Democrats learned over time that there is no getting to the Republican party’s right on these culture issues. Instead, they have tried to appeal to these voters via other channels, like economic populism. The best example of this strategy is none other than Barack Obama. After the Democratic defeat in 2004, it was conventional wisdom that the party had to find a way to win over blue-collar guys driving pickup trucks, which meant blunting the GOP advantage on the culture war. Obama went in precisely the opposite direction. He refused to pursue those voters on the terms set by the Republican party, and instead formed a different coalition altogether.

There’s a lesson in this. The constraints of the GOP coalition limit the party’s ability to make identity-based appeals to Hispanic voters (or any ethnic group, for that matter). The Democrats will always get to the GOP’s left when it comes to identity politics. In the case of immigration reform, the desire by most Republican voters to respect the rule of law will keep the party from offering an amnesty package to Hispanics as generous as Democrats can. The latter will thus pocket any concessions that the former provide, and then ask for more later.

This does not mean that the GOP should abandon immigration reform. It means, rather, that it should formulate its position on the issue for the sake of good policy, and not in the expectation of political benefit. The party’s best bet to win Hispanic voters is to find ways to appeal to them on other issues, especially those where their interests line up with the interests of the GOP’s electorate.

Changing the conversation in this way is easier said than done. Inevitably, the country ends up talking about the issues the president wants to discuss, and considering the policy reforms he thinks are advisable. And Obama wants to talk about immigration reform because it is good for his party and his legacy, not because it helps the GOP. The next opportunity the Republican party will have to influence the conversation on an equal footing with Democrats will be the 2016 presidential campaign. This means looking for a nominee who can form a majority coalition not by playing the game by rules set by Democrats; that will be a sure loser in the general election. A winning Republican candidate will be one who can harmonize the interests of swing voters—be they Hispanic, Protestant, female, lower income, or whatever—with those of the party’s conservative base.

Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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