The GOP’s immigration conundrum

Dan Balz
Chief correspondent February 8

House Republicans’ latest revolt against immigration reform spells potential trouble for the party’s 2016 presidential candidates. The last thing the GOP needs in 2016 is another primary season marked by debate and dissension over the fraught issue.

The party’s handling of immigration reform legislation since President Obama won reelection with 71 percent of the Hispanic vote reprises a decades-long pattern that has weakened the GOP in the competition for that bloc. On the one hand, there is a recognition that the party needs to do more to attract Hispanic votes. On the other, there are repeated actions, both individual and collective, that send the opposite signal.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

That is what has happened over the past few weeks. At one point, House leaders, led by Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), issued a list of principles for reform legislation that included a path to legal status but not to citizenship. That suggested a collective determination to pass something this year. Then, after a backlash from the outside groups that have long been Boehner’s nemeses, the speaker did an abrupt about-face, saying that a lack of trust that Obama would enforce the law made passage this year a heavy lift.

Perhaps the speaker is playing an exceedingly clever game to keep everyone guessing, a perils-of-Pauline soap opera in which he has already sketched out the scenario that ends with the passage of some notable piece of legislation this year. After all, he’s given every indication that immigration reform is something he wants to do, something he believes is good for the country and good for his party.

More likely, he is reflecting the views of the party’s most conservative members and those outside groups, who in turn reflect the views of many rank-and-file Republicans. Comprehensive reform, including a path to citizenship, enjoys majority support nationally. But conservative Republicans continue to oppose a bill that includes any path to citizenship.

Some Republicans are suggesting that they should not clutter up the midterm elections with an issue that divides their party and should instead try to energize their voters by focusing on the issue that most unites Republicans, Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Many House Republicans hate the bipartisan immigration bill that was passed by the Senate last year. If the GOP could win control of that chamber, it might be able to write legislation more to its liking and force the president to accept it.

There is no question that the politics of this are difficult for Boehner. Could he wait to push forward this year until it would be too late for conservative challengers to mount primary campaigns against incumbent House Republicans? Will there be a better opportunity next year? Will Republicans trust Obama more next year? What is the maximum Boehner can get now as opposed to then? Would support for legal status, rather than a path to citizenship, be enough to position Republicans better to start courting Hispanics on other issues?

But another question that Republicans should be asking is: What are the consequences of inaction? Can they afford another presidential nomination contest in which immigration reform plays a central role, as it did in 2012? There is debate inside the party over how much immigration hurt Mitt Romney in the general election. But no one is arguing that it helped him, and few would say a fresh debate in 2016 would be a net plus for their nominee, unless that nominee had run forcefully in favor of comprehensive reform.

A year ago, it looked as if most of the likely GOP presidential candidates in 2016 would be advocates of comprehensive reform. The task force created by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus — a group that was weighted toward the establishment wing of the party — recommended support for such a measure. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) took a lead role in helping produce a bipartisan Senate bill. Others who are considering running in 2016 made statements indicating at least some level of support for comprehensive legislation.

Today, that support is far more muted, if it exists at all. The conservative intelligentsia is split on what to do. The base is clearly opposed to comprehensive reform. Given the prospective field of candidates for 2016, it’s likely that those running will include outright opponents of a path to citizenship. Whoever becomes the nominee will risk having been pushed further to the right than is politically safe for a general election.

Romney said after the 2012 election that he had recognized the potentially debilitating impact an intraparty debate on immigration could have on the nominating process. He had hoped there was a way for the party to come together on some set of principles to at least prevent the issue from being front and center during the primaries, he said, but that didn’t happen. Romney then mishandled immigration during the GOP primaries, as his advisers later admitted (though he had a different, somewhat contrarian view of that).

Romney’s advisers discovered that, whatever problems were caused by the former governor’s talk of self-deportation and the hard line he took on immigration reform, their biggest obstacle to reaching Hispanic voters in the general election was health care. Hispanics strongly supported Obama’s health-care initiative.

That points to another problem. Republicans have long argued that they can appeal to Hispanics on issues other than immigration. So far, they have yet to prove it. Appeals to the patriotism of the Hispanic community have not worked consistently. Appeals to Hispanic small-business owners haven’t done it. Efforts to reach socially conservative Hispanics on issues such as abortion have produced few dividends. The party is still looking for an effective message for Hispanics.

Immigration remains a gateway issue. Passage of immigration reform won’t necessarily win the next presidential nominee significantly more Hispanic votes. But its absence as a divisive issue in the nomination contest would give Republican candidates an opportunity to talk to Hispanic voters about new ideas or issues.

Republicans already face significant problems winning the Rocky Mountain states in a presidential election. Growing Hispanic populations in Nevada and New Mexico have made those two states major challenges for the party. Colorado is still competitive but could become more difficult for the GOP in future elections. Arizona, which has remained in the Republican column, could become a competitive state because of Hispanic population growth.

Perhaps an immigration reform bill will be enacted before the presidential primaries begin in 2016. What Boehner did this week in bowing to pressures from the right was to underscore that Republicans continue to think more like a congressional party than a presidential party. It will be interesting to see whether any of the prospective presidential candidates is ready to challenge that orthodoxy.

For previous columns by Dan Balz, go to postpolitics.com.

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