Nate Cohn’s piece in the New Republic, which relies on results from a Pew survey out this week, offers some blunt conclusions on the challenges of Republican rebranding: relatively few rank and file Republicans actually want the party to shift toward more moderate ideological positions, and those who do are generally matched by GOP voters who would just as soon shift to the right, and substantially outpaced by the numbers who prefer the status quo.
To be sure, there are methodological challenges that Cohn acknowledges but deserve more analysis: for example, a survey that assumes that voters are correctly identifying, or that they even mean the same thing, when they describe their party’s “current position”, is begging for a set of false positives. But anyone who spends time at Republican activist events can attest that the gist of the data feels about right. To the extent there is enthusiasm for redefining the party, it is more oriented around hopes for “better messaging” or a “more positive way of framing our arguments” than a wholesale desire to revisit actual substantive policies.
That’s a challenge, for a variety of reasons that I will keep addressing in these pages, but I’ll pull out one aspect of it for an extra word of elaboration: the goal of broadening the party without changing it very much explains a lot about one particular African American outreach effort that is becoming faddish on the right: capitalizing on prospective tensions inside the Democratic base between blacks v. Latinos by emphasizing the potential costs that legalizing undocumented immigrants might have on black low wage workers.
I happen to be a skeptic of the Senate immigration legislation, who would prefer Republicans counter it with an amalgamation of approaches that cross conventional lines: support of something like the DREAM Act that prioritizes immigrants who migrated as children or teenagers, combined with a more rigorous employment verification regime and tougher border enforcement, and strengthening the penalties for illegal immigration to match, say, Canada’s felony status for undocumented workers and genuinely stiff sanctions for smuggling.
But that skepticism does not translate into an intuition that black unemployment or limited access to jobs dominated by illegal immigrants is a major economic consequence of reform. The evidence of any trends to that effect seems highly selective. Most of the case rests on an overreliance on data showing that illegal immigration diminishes low level wages even further, without accounting for the obvious: the alternative to reform is not some national dragnet that would deport most of the illegal immigrant population, and open up previously immigrant dominated jobs, but a muddling through with the status quo in which the undocumented population ratches up each year and may hit 14.5 million by 2018. Nor do the arguments that blacks are adversely affected by a pathway to citizenship grapple with another just as apparent fact: the long waiting period for actual citizenship will still mean that the current undocumented pool remains for most of the next decade what it is today: a collection of workers who have become accustomed to abysmal wages and can’t sue or comfortably complain to federal safety regulators. In other words, a more attractive labor source to certain elements of the low skill retail, construction and agri-business sectors than blacks with legal status could conceivably be.
And the heavy flaws in the effort to lure blacks with immigrant bashing don’t compare with another underlying political reality: if a politician’s sympathy for low income blacks surfaces only in the context of thwarting immigration legislation, but has no antecedents in other contemporary policy fights, like extending unemployment benefits, or preserving the recently expired FICA tax cuts, that candidate is unlikely to plausibly position himself as a champion of low wage black aspirations.
So, a Republican Party looking to accomplish one objective of the moment—restoring the black vote to 2000 Bush levels (11 percent) and curbing the black enthusiasm for Democrats to the point that the surges in black turnout that saved Ohio and Virginia for Obama stop happening—has a steeper task than pointing out the threat that liberalizing immigration laws might pose to poor blacks. And a Republican Party looking to demonstrate that it is not allergic to the ideal of a national community, a popular and much touted brand of Reagan-era conservatism, can do much better than playing off one overlooked camp in the Democratic base against another.