Veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres is releasing a new book today that will — or should — stoke a lot of discussion in GOP circles, particularly now that Republicans gearing up for 2016 are once again grappling with how to talk about immigration in a way that doesn’t alienate Latinos in 2012 numbers. In the book, Ayres argues that Republicans need to figure out a way to lead on the issue:
Rather than cursing the darkness, reflexively screaming “amnesty,” and calling for deportation of a population the size of Ohio, they need to light a candle and show the way forward on this complex issue. And they must do this in a way that solves the problem and does not doom the Republican Party to political irrelevance in the future.
Any suggestions that Republicans can avoid tackling this challenge and instead run up even larger totals among white voters to offset 2012-level struggles among Latinos, Aryes suggests, are rooted in an unwillingness to grapple with demographic realities.
Jeb Bush’s appearance before the Conservative Political Action Conference today was widely seen as a test of how he’d fare if he stuck to his support for legal status for the 11 million in the face of an audience supposedly hostile to that position — one that represents the conservatives who have outsized influence over GOP primaries. He did do that, and in so doing, took small steps in the direction Ayres counsels.
However, Bush’s appearance was also notable for the degree to which he fudged on the basic challenge Republicans face on the issue. Here is what Bush said about a path to legal status:
“The simple fact is there is no plan to deport 11 million people. We should give them a path to legal status, where they work, they don’t receive government benefits, where they don’t break the law, where they learn English, and where they make a contribution to our society. That’s what we need to be focused on.”
That’s in keeping with Bush’s previous statements, in which he suggested that undocumented immigrants should be seen as having something positive to contribute to American life. That got him in a lot of trouble with conservatives. But today the booing was muted and he seemed to emerge unscathed. That’s good.
But then Sean Hannity asked him: Why not secure the borders first? Bush replied:
“Let’s do it. Let’s do it, man…Let’s control the border. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s what a great nation has to do. There’s nothing that holds back the Republicans to put a comprehensive plan in place to do that.”
Yes, let’s secure the border. But the basic question that conservatives and liberals alike will eventually want the GOP candidates to answer is: Are you willing to offer some kind of solution that secures the border while simultaneously taking steps to bring the 11 million out of the shadows, provided a series of conditions are met?
It seems obvious that such a compromise is the only route to achieving a comprehensive bipartisan solution to this national problem. Even House GOP leaders accept that the need for some form of legalization must be part of comprehensive reform. But, even though a number of Republicans joined with Democrats to pass such a compromise through the Senate, House Republicans — many of whom represent the conservative wing of the party — have yet to do the hard policy work of figuring out whether there is any set of conditions under which they can accept legalization as part of a broad compromise, and if so, what it would have to entail to be acceptable to them.
Bush’s suggestion today that he supports legalization — combined with his reflexive nodding along as Hannity demanded the border be secured first — puts him in this same vague space. Marco Rubio, who previously supported the Senate bill, has also reverted to this same place. Obviously CPAC was not the place to roll out detailed policy proposals, and it’s way too early in the process to expect specifics. But one surprise about the 2016 GOP field has been that, unlike many House Republicans, most of the contenders actually do appear open to supporting some form of legalization or other. When the GOP candidates begin differentiating themselves from one another by fleshing out how to get there, things will really get interesting.