In the wake of the 2012 election, Republicans have been treated to seemingly endless prophecies of doom. Many have come from liberal Democrats, who would happily see the demise of the GOP. But more than a few Republicans have also made the case that the party must either change or disappear, and they focus especially on immigration. South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham argued recently that unless the GOP does something on immigration, it will face a “demographic death spiral” as the growing Hispanic population turns on Republicans.
Fortunately, claims like this are overblown. As Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics has noted, the Republican party’s defeat in 2012 had more to do with shifts in turnout, especially among whites and blacks, than it did with the party’s weak appeal among Hispanics. These shifts pose problems the GOP must address, but immigration reform won’t do it. A recent Pew poll found that whites and blacks tend to be the groups most suspicious of the immigration reforms put forward in recent weeks. As for the long-term future of the party, the losses the GOP has suffered to date among Hispanics have been more than offset by its gains among white voters, who have been trending the party’s way since 1968.
This doesn’t mean the Republican party should ignore Hispanic voters. It shouldn’t ignore any voters, and besides, Hispanics determine the outcome in several Mountain West states and are very important in Florida. But Graham wants Republicans specifically to adopt the Gang of Eight immigration bill that he, Chuck Schumer, Marco Rubio, and others put forward and which just passed the Senate. They think it’s a cure for what ails Republicans.
Many Republican senators have apparently bought this notion. The bill passed with the support of about a third of the Senate GOP caucus. Nevertheless, the proposition is just not true. The Gang of Eight bill would be a step backward in the party’s quest for political rehabilitation.
To see this, it is necessary to ask: What, after all, is the voters’ problem with the GOP? Their demographic characteristics like religion, skin color, and ethnic background don’t reveal the underlying attitudes that drive their discomfort with the party. Beneath these factors, we find a skepticism of the Republican party that unites many different types of voters, including many who supported the GOP as recently as 2004.
The 2012 exit polls show the country unhappy with the state of the union, disappointed with Barack Obama’s governance, disapproving of Obamacare, and generally inclined to think government should do less, not more. Yet Mitt Romney still lost—in no small part because voters believed that Obama, not Romney, cared about average people.
If Republicans are to win again, this is the image they must combat. Too many voters still see the GOP as a bunch of rich, aloof plutocrats. The most obvious way to address this problem is for Republicans to focus relentlessly on the middle-class squeeze that has afflicted the country for over a decade. Incomes have stagnated, while the costs of energy, health care, education, and other essentials have only grown. The result is that wages and salaries, adjusted for inflation and population, are lower today than any point since 1998.
Closely related is the problem of unemployment, whose true scope is masked by the official unemployment rate. That statistic has recently trended downward, from a high of 10 percent to roughly 7.5 percent today, but the broadest measure of employment shows the job situation to be dire. Today, just 58.6 percent of all adults are employed, down from 62.9 percent before the most recent recession. There have not been so many able-bodied adults so consistently out of work since the recession of the early 1980s.
This must be the number one priority of the Republican party. It is not enough for the party to formulate policies to address this issue; the GOP must convince the electorate that, if elected, it would focus like a laser-beam on jobs and incomes, making every other concern secondary.
Unfortunately, the Gang of Eight bill sends precisely the wrong message. In the long run, the Congressional Budget Office estimates the legislation would have a positive effect on wages and employment, but that would come only after a decade of economic displacement. In its analysis of the bill, the CBO stated: “As the labor supply initially increased under the legislation, less capital would be available for each worker to produce output, and thus workers’ output, on average, would be lower for a time. That decline would reduce average wages relative to those under current law.” CBO reached a similar conclusion regarding unemployment, which would rise in the short term.
More fundamentally, as Fred Bauer has argued at length in National Review, the flaws of the Senate immigration bill “pose significant problems for the future success of conservative ideas, Republican renewal, and the restoration of American economic growth.” The immigration bill would accelerate rather than combat the economic decline of the middle class. As Bauer argues, “endorsing an immigration bill that undermines wages, perpetuates economic and cultural divisions, and enshrines a new bureaucracy would seem a stumbling block for a GOP seeking to restore itself as the party of economic dynamism, popular prosperity, and limited government.”
In addition, the Republican party should be responsive to the growing sense among voters that Washington is broken, that it treats people differently depending on their political connections. The outrage sparked by the Wall Street bailout, the stimulus, and Obamacare helped fuel the Tea Party, and now it is driving public anger over the unfair practices of the Internal Revenue Service. A party that presumes to call itself Republican—a word suggesting equal treatment under the law—cannot ignore the increasingly antirepublican quality of public policy. Promising to end the double-dealing and special privileges of politics-as-usual could help persuade voters that the GOP is looking out for average people.
But once again the Gang of Eight bill heads in the wrong direction. It is larded with the special favors that characterized Obamacare. The Gang of Eight granted the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce extraordinary access, allowing them to draft large swaths of the guest worker program. And there are special provisions for key senators. The bill would extend the Travel Promotion Act of 2009 to aid the casino industry, to the satisfaction of Nevada senators Harry Reid and Dean Heller. There is a $1.5 billion jobs program inserted at the urging of socialist senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Alaska received a carve-out for its seafood industry, a boon to senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich.
There may be other payoffs buried in the bill that reporters haven’t found yet. After all, the legislation was largely crafted in secret, rushed through the Senate Judiciary Committee, and then passed last Thursday after a major rewrite was published the preceding Friday. This is just the sort of political gamesmanship that produced the Tea Party backlash of 2010, which not coincidentally produced the biggest victory the GOP has enjoyed over congressional Democrats since the 1920s.
None of this is to deny that immigration reform should be a policy priority for the Republican party, nor is it a commentary on the merits of various approaches. There is a wide array of opinion within the GOP on that front, and a healthy debate is a good thing.
The point is that the Gang of Eight bill hurts the Republican party in ways that are central to its long-term viability. The GOP is not going to thrive if it is perceived as conspiring to reduce wages, increase unemployment, give newly legalized immigrants a hiring advantage over citizens, or grant special favors to politically connected interests. If Republicans want to return to the political majority, they need to stand, forcefully and unequivocally, for the middle class and against special interests—and that means vigorously exposing the flaws in the Gang of Eight bill.
Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.