Michael Gerson: GOP defined by its whiteness?

August 2, 2013 

The tone of the immigration debate has recently taken a sharp downward turn, which may not be a bad thing for immigration reform's legislative prospects.

Rep. Steve King's description of the children of undocumented workers as having "calves the size of cantaloupes" from hauling bales of marijuana across the desert brought a cascade of Republican rebuke. "There's no place in this debate for hateful or ignorant comments from elected officials," said Speaker John Boehner. King seemed confused by the criticism. Were people offended by "my choice of the fruit?" This is the GOP challenge in miniature: How to appeal to an increasingly diverse nation when the behavior of a small but vocal portion of its coalition is offensive and clueless.

Boehner's response was not only tough — just the kind of rapid response Sister Souljah-ing Republicans need more of — but politically sophisticated. To express his displeasure with King, the speaker held a meeting with the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, an organization of Latino evangelicals. Support from this demographic group, now about one-third of all U.S. Latinos, was essential to President George W. Bush's re-election victory in 2004 (he won more than 60 percent). Sympathy among these voters is a fair test of GOP prospects among Latinos. If Republicans can't appeal to born-again Christians who happen to be Latino, it means the party is defined by its whiteness.

This may not be a serious political problem in Iowa's4th Congressional District, represented by King, which is about 93 percent white and less than 6 percent Latino. It would be a major problem for a national party that must perform in places such as Florida, Nevada or Colorado, particularly in presidential elections. This is the main GOP political divide on immigration reform: between those focused on the electoral dynamics of their district or state (and sometimes fearful of primary challenges from within the conservative portion of those electorates) and those focused on its national prospects.

The political tide flows naturally in the direction of parochialism. A primary challenge is a more tangible and immediate threat than a possible future loss of the White House. And GOP members of the House will be taking careful measure of public opinion on immigration reform during the August recess. Is opposition building or fizzling? But King's comments make a fizzle marginally more likely. The congressman has confronted Republicans with a question in its starkest form: Is this a party that trades in stereotypes to feed public resentment of outsiders? Boehner gave a strong, moral response to that approach, calling it hateful and ignorant. The speaker set some firm boundaries on acceptable discourse within the party.

Not all objections to immigration reform, of course, are of the King variety. Many Republicans would be open to comprehensive reform with sufficient assurances that the current problems of our current system won't recur 10 or 20 years down the road. Their concerns can be addressed in the legislative process with strong enforcement and border control measures (unless their distrust of government has moved beyond the possibility of reassurance).

King has effectively forced the real issue. Republicans will either view immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, as threats to the nation or as potential advantages to the nation. Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development recently put the matter in historical context: "In 1900, this country was a fourth of the size it is today. A little over half of that increase came from immigration, and what happens to unemployment rates? Nothing at all. Actually zero effect. … All of that immigration led to a massively more prosperous economy."

For the GOP, this is not just a matter of economics but of political philosophy. Only a party that generally regards human beings as sources of ambition, enterprise and future wealth will be a source of inspiration to the whole country.

THE WASHINGTON POSTWRITERS GROUP

Email: michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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