WASHINGTON — Various factions of the GOP continue to rummage through House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s astonishing primary loss for confirmation of their pre-existing views. The entire enterprise of turning 36,000 votes in the Richmond suburbs into received political wisdom is suspect. But many Republicans have declared immigration reform to be really, honestly, finally dead.
According to the talk radio right, Cantor lost for supporting “amnesty,” which he had actually rejected. But some of the best thinkers of the reform conservative movement — pushing Republicans toward a more populist, pro-family, pro-middle-class agenda — have posited a more sophisticated connection between immigration and Cantor’s loss. Part of his establishment baggage was, in New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s words, his support for the “donor class’s consensus on immigration reform.” Argues National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru: “Cantor fell victim to the tea party-establishment battle that we are trying to transcend, and in particular to the establishment wing’s conviction that what Republicans need to do above all is modify their stance on immigration.”
Let me stipulate that reform conservatism is the best hope of a Republican Party struggling to attract middle-class voters. And that the GOP needs to distance itself from an (often deserved) reputation for crony capitalism. But insofar as conservatives identify crony capitalism with comprehensive immigration reform, they undermine the future of the party they seek to help.
Some conservatives have a long-standing concern that increasing the number of low-skilled workers — as the Senate-passed immigration bill would do — might depress wages among the native-born. The objection is sincere and overblown. When the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution applied the two main economic models to the Senate bill over 10 years, one predicted a small decline in wages for workers with less than a high school education. The other predicted a small increase. The average impact on the wages of U.S.-born workers would be positive in both scenarios. This is a very thin technical basis on which to assert an irrepressible conflict between middle-class populism and immigration reform (which would have many other humane and economically constructive benefits).
But there also seems to be a political strategy — or a least a political bet — at work. Some conservatives are trying to make common cause with tea party populism, which may be open to pro-middle-class reforms, but certainly not on immigration. The future, in this view, lies with Republicans such as Sen. Mike Lee — skeptical on immigration reform, supportive of middle-class populism — rather than immigration softies such as Jeb Bush.
This judgment on the internal politics of the GOP may be correct. But it illustrates a problem. Almost all the internal preoccupations of the Republican Party — in primary battles, intra-movement arguments, conservative media tropes — have nothing to do with the party’s main external challenges: appealing to young people, to the middle class, to the working class and to rising demographic groups. Even the few who admit this problem seem to disagree about priority and consistency of such appeals.
There is a reason Sen. Marco Rubio and House Speaker John Boehner have sometimes prioritized immigration reform in ways that seemed divisive within the conference — because they think that the Republican future depends on overcoming a durable impression of suspicion toward new Americans. And they are correct. Even if immigration reform is not everyone’s top priority in the polls, embracing it would be a signal that Republicans recognize, accept, even welcome that the face of America is changing.
Currently, that face often registers disdain. Mitt Romney won 59 percent of the white vote in the process of losing the 2012 election by four points. By one estimate, if Democrats secure 80 percent of minority votes in the next presidential election (a realistic goal), they will only need 37 percent of the white vote to extend their White House winning streak. Those who think that ethnic outreach is a secondary concern for Republicans are proposing to win the presidency on a map without Florida.
But the working- and middle-class voters of the Rust Belt will also be essential. Which reveals the Republican political challenge in all its complexity. The GOP requires a candidate who can get through a nomination process that includes Iowa and South Carolina, then secure increased support from white middle-class voters in Ohio and Hispanic voters in Florida. The ideal nominee, therefore, would have tea party populist roots, middle-class sensibilities, a policy interest in social mobility and a conspicuously welcoming approach to immigration.
Not an easy profile to find in any circumstances. Impossible when ruled out beforehand.
Michael Gerson’s email address is email@example.com.