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The Wrong Fix for the Wrong Problem

The immigration bill will only make things worse for the middle class—and the GOP.

Jul 8, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 41 • By JAY COST
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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.

Don’t hold your breath.

Don’t hold your breath.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram / MCT / Landov

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.

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