In The Semi-Sovereign People, political scientist E. E. Schattschneider asked the question: Of all the potential political conflicts within society, why do only a few become active? His answer has to do with the power to set the agenda. He wrote, “Political conflict is not like an intercollegiate debate in which the opponents agree in advance on a definition of the issues. As a matter of fact, the definition of the alternatives is the supreme instrument of power. . . . He who determines what politics is about runs the country, because the definition of alternatives is the choice of conflicts, and the choice of conflicts allocates power.”
This is a point that conservatives would do well to keep in mind as the immigration reform debate rolls on. In particular, they should wonder why the range of alternatives has essentially been reduced to this stark choice: The Republican party can reach out to Hispanics by supporting the Senate immigration bill, or it can wander in the wilderness as a political minority for the next generation.
Why exactly are the GOP’s electoral prospects so dependent on this one issue? In 2012, Obama bested Romney in one group after another. Romney did not win enough Catholics, or middle-aged people, or women, or working-class voters, or Midwesterners, or whatever. So, why are the party’s problems being viewed mainly through the lens of ethnicity?
But let’s assume that the path back to majority for the GOP is a focus on ethnicity. That assumption raises a second question: Why is immigration reform the tonic for what ails the Republican party with Hispanic voters? The primary benefit of the Senate bill—legal status for the illegal population—is at best a symbolic gesture of friendship to Hispanic citizens. Indeed, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the flood of newly legalized labor will, over the next decade, harm the prospects of low-income Hispanics already here legally. Why is it that of all the various ways Republicans might appeal to the Hispanic electorate, immigration reform is the one proposal on the table?
Again, for the sake of argument, let’s assume this question has a compelling answer. We are still left with a third query: Why, of all the various ways to reform the immigration system, are conservatives faced with accepting or rejecting the Senate proposal? After all, there are an infinite number of ways that the immigration system might be improved. Why this proposal?
These questions can all be brought under the headline: Who has exercised the power to set the agenda here, and why have they set it in this way? Above all, we may look to the president, whose greatest asset in our political system is the power to set the agenda, to define the alternatives. Barack Obama is looking for a legacy item in his second term; seeing how far he stands from House Republicans on fiscal issues, immigration is his best opportunity.
After that, we have the national Democratic machine, which is interested in immigration reform because of the potential votes it could yield down the line, the union members it might add, and the activist fervor it will stoke. Finally, many elements in the business community—which over the years has made common cause with conservatives—are interested in using the power of Uncle Sam to reduce the cost of labor. They are interested in the temporary worker programs, as well as the legalization of millions of workers whom they cannot now legally hire.
None of these groups necessarily has the best interests of the Republican party at heart. In fact, the interests of Obama and his party are perfectly inverse to those of the GOP. Nevertheless, they are the ones who, by and large, have set the agenda in 2013. They are the ones who have defined the alternatives. Republicans have mostly been secondary players in this grand debate about the GOP’s future.
On the issue of immigration, conservatives are facing the same type of trap that Democrats have faced over the years when trying to pursue the “values voters.” After every Democratic loss on the national stage since 1988, a range of pundits have highlighted the Democratic party’s deficiencies on issues surrounding guns, God, gays, abortion, and so on. But in most instances (gun control being a notable exception), the Democratic party has not really budged on the “culture war.”
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.