The early immigration reform efforts on Capitol Hill have drawn conservatives into a debate with each other over the relative political merits of joining Democrats in providing immigrants a path to citizenship.
The poles of that debate stretch from the argument that Republicans risk handing Democrats a permanent majority to the more panicked view that Republicans can’t afford not to support reform. In between, some hedge that reform might stanch the bleeding, but won’t revive the GOP’s standing with Latino voters.
As far as that argument goes, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. But confining the analysis to the question of how immigrant communities will respond to reform is an error.
I think there’s a big but hidden political upside for conservative reformers — if they win the argument. That’s because immigration reform won’t just force the right to confront its revanchist elements, but also the 47-percenters — the much larger faction of the conservative movement that views Americans who rely on government assistance disdainfully, as bought-off members of the Democratic coalition.
In their inimitable way, the editors of National Review exposed the broader challenge for conservative immigration reformers.
“While many are in business for themselves, they express hostile attitudes toward free enterprise in polls,” they wrote. “They are disproportionately low-income and disproportionately likely to receive some form of government support. More than half of Hispanic births are out of wedlock. Take away the Spanish surname and Latino voters look a great deal like many other Democratic constituencies.”
That’s the conservative elite’s polite way of opposing comprehensive immigration reform. The problem isn’t that they’re brown, but that they’re poor. This is straight 47 percenterism, and it’s just as politically deadly when dressed up as an argument against immigration reform as it is when wielded against the shiftless hoards of the right’s fever dreams.
More and more Republicans are coming around to the realization that this is a problem. It’s my suspicion that Marco Rubio understands it’s a problem. And it’s particularly a problem for him if he wants to be President in 2016. Immigration reform or no, it’s not going to happen if he has to win over a base that’s thick with disdain for half the country. Immigration reform gives him an opportunity to confront that element of the party by proxy, and break it of bad habits. If he’s successful — big if — the long-term political upside for him and for the broader GOP will be huge.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.