The magic bullet of American politics is no secret. When in doubt or when they are backed into a corner—as they are now with ObamaCare’s disastrous rollout compounded, by the exposure of the president’s lies about Americans being able to keep their health coverage—liberals know their best strategy is to change the topic and to start discussing racism. That’s the rather flimsy conceit of an opinion piece published in today’s New York Times as a news story under the rubric of a “Political Memo.” You don’t have to read between the lines to catch on to its not terribly subtle message. All you have to do is to read the headline: “Behind the Roar of Political Debates, Whispers of Race Persist.” According to the Times the proof of this is the fact that the largely liberal-leaning and pro-Obama African-American community backs the president’s signature health-care plan while whites don’t. Were author John Harwood interested in serious analysis of opinion about the issue, he would have noted that the percentage of blacks backing the bill—59 percent—was far lower than the percentage of that community that votes for Democrats, showing just how shaky backing for ObamaCare really is. But instead it was the lead-in for a lengthy dissertation about how Republicans are injecting race and racism into American politics.
The utter absence of racial incitement in American politics has forced the left to invent new forms of alleged racism, such as voter ID laws that are even supported by the majority of African Americans. Nor is the Democrats’ firm hold on the votes of minorities such as blacks and Hispanics terribly surprising, since groups comprising of those more likely to have lower incomes or to be immigrants will always skew to the left. Hyping this split, as the Times does, as being the result of Republican racism is disingenuous. This is a classic example of liberal media bias that seeks to interpret the strong support for limited government or opposition to the president as motivated by hate. But before conservatives completely dismiss it, they need to think long and hard about how they will approach the impending debate about immigration reform.
While immigration is likely to remain on the back burner with the focus on the need for a budget deal and the ObamaCare rollout, the administration as well as key business groups will be pushing hard for it in the upcoming months. Many conservatives oppose reform because they think providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants is wrong or because they don’t trust the government to enforce current laws or to, as the bipartisan compromise bill passed earlier this year by the Senate promises, secure the border. But if, as some prominent voices on the right seem inclined to believe, the rationale for opposing reform is that more Hispanic immigrant voters will hurt the Republican Party, then they will have effectively validated the premise of the Times hit piece on the GOP.
Back in June, writing in agreement with something I wrote on the subject, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg stated, “Republicans cannot allow themselves to fall into the argument that they don’t want to legalize illegal immigrants solely because they’re afraid they’ll become Democrats.” But unfortunately that’s exactly what some are still doing. Over the past year, a steady undercurrent of conservative voices have been claiming that the main consequence of passing immigration reform will be to doom the GOP because it will result in the creation of more Hispanic voters. Just this week, pundit Ann Coulter said it on William Bennett’s “Morning in America” radio program without being challenged by the show’s host even though he remains one of the most honorable and sensible conservatives in the country.
Those like Goldberg who argue that Republicans shouldn’t try and justify immigration reform by saying it will lead to Hispanics voting for the GOP are right. They are not one-issue voters, and the economic status of many of them means they will remain in the pockets of big-government tax-and-spend Democrats.
But the moment conservatives start talking about a political imperative to limit the number of Hispanics becoming citizens they render themselves vulnerable to accusations of prejudice such as the ones being floated by the Times. As with the entire issue of immigration, we’ve been here before as a nation. In the late 19th century, Republicans felt that immigrants from Ireland and Italy were natural supporters of urban Democrat machines. Had they taken the long view, they would have realized that eventually the descendants of those new citizens would be just as open to the GOP message as WASPs. But instead, they did their best to alienate them; with Republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine (whose anti-Catholic bigotry was the impetus for the passage of state constitutional amendments banning the funding of religious schools that today thwart school choice) denouncing the Democrats in 1884 as the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” It would be decades before his party lived that down and began making inroads with these voters.
Immigration reform must be debated on its merits. Like Senator Marco Rubio, I believe “amnesty” is what we have now with unenforceable laws, not the prospect that law-abiding people who have been here for many years and are willing to pay a penalty will be given a chance to come in out of the shadows and become citizens. Others will argue that doing so undermines the rule of law. I think that’s wrong, but it is at least an argument rooted in principle. But the moment conservatives start talking about their fear of Hispanic votes, they really are dooming the Republicans to a bleak future and undermining their standing with the rest of the country as well.
Race and ethnicity should never be allowed to define American politics. That’s true for race baiting liberals like the ones at the Times as well as those on the right who speak of a Hispanic peril. The danger to the GOP in this debate is not so much the prospect of a split between those who disagree about the issue but the possibility of many conservatives sending a message to Hispanics that they are not welcome. That is a mistake for which their party could pay dearly.