The Magazine

The Double Bind

What stands in the way of a Republican revival? Republicans.

Mar 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 26 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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The money for Republican campaigns, television ads, and the institutional apparatus of the conservative movement comes primarily from the first group. Ending corporate welfare and breaking up the big banks may sound swell, it may be the right thing to do, but you won’t see a Republican politician advocating these policies because that politician depends on campaign funds from banks and corporations. And you won’t see defense hawks or social conservatives really get tough on Wall Street, either, because that’s not a priority for them.

Meanwhile, a “reform of the federal role in education” would be problematic from the point of view of both libertarians and social conservatives. Libertarians oppose increasing power of the central government while social conservatives worry that an empowered Department of Education would crack down on homeschooling and impose on school districts a curriculum hostile to traditional values.

Furthermore, Republicans have promised to “level the playing field” through deregulation for decades. The political results have been mixed. And the GOP already has the votes of people opposed to bailouts. Did Hispanics and Asians vote for Obama because Romney supported TARP?

Imagine that an ambitious Republican barnstormed the country calling for an end to federal ownership of or investment in private companies, a flat-rate corporate tax with no loopholes or subsidies, a cap on the size banks can grow as a percentage of the economy, a major reform of federal involvement in education, including a national curriculum and changing the way school is financed, and additional rounds of deregulation. Business and social conservatives would slam him. Wall Street would not fund him. And the “coalition of the ascendant” would wonder, how does this help us?

On second thought, you don’t have to imagine this because an actual Republican, Jon Huntsman, barnstormed the country in 2011 with something closely resembling this agenda. And look what happened to him.

Immigration is another example of the double bind. Charles Krauthammer used his postelection column to argue that GOP fortunes would change with “a single policy change: border fence plus amnesty. Yes, amnesty. Use the word.”

Hispanics, Krauthammer said, “should be a natural Republican constituency” but vote Democratic because of “the issue of illegal immigrants.” No more illegal immigrants, no more issue. And party elites agree with Krauthammer. They have signaled their willingness to compromise with President Obama on a “comprehensive immigration reform” bill.

But their reasoning is faulty. Illegal immigration is not the reason Hispanic voters support the Democratic party. Hispanic voters support the Democratic party because they tend to agree with its domestic policy agenda of redistributing money to the middle class and needy.

Obama’s senior strategist, David Plouffe, recently told the New York Times, “By the way, the bigger problem [the GOP has] got with Latinos isn’t immigration. It’s the economic policies and health care. The group that supported the president’s health care bill the most? Latinos.” Maybe we shouldn’t listen to Plouffe, though. He’s only won two consecutive presidential elections.

Not only would an amnesty fail to win Latino votes, it would tear the Republican coalition apart. Wall Street and the business community may support comprehensive immigration reform because it would increase the supply of labor and keep wages competitive. But the everyday Republican voter is less sanguine about millions of newcomers showing up on his porch.

Immigration from south of the border may have subsided thanks to an improving Mexican economy and a sclerotic American one. But there is reason to be concerned that a legislative amnesty would provoke another round of illegal border crossings. There is reason to be concerned because that is exactly what happened after the last amnesty in 1986.

And it’s not as though the GOP has failed to go down the amnesty road before. President George W. Bush’s attempts to pass an amnesty divided his party and sparked anti-immigration-reform marches in the capital. The fierce backlash was a precursor to the Tea Party.

Does the GOP really want to repeat the experience?

Some say the Republican double bind is a messaging problem. Republicans are too insensitive, according to this view. They need to update their arguments for a kinder, gentler, 21st-century world. Last week Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed urging the party to “make improving the lives of vulnerable people the primary focus of authentically conservative policies.”

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