On immigration issues, the Republican Party allowed its most extreme elements to turn white anger into a national platform. And many candidates, knowing that some working-class white voters blamed illegal immigration for the high unemployment rate, competed to demonize undocumented workers in ever-more creative ways.
But since Election Day’s rude introduction to demographic reality — only 23 percent of Hispanics voted for Mitt Romney, according to a comprehensive poll by the group Latino Decisions — Republicans have been clamoring to create a new narrative.
For a little more than a week now, they have been testing out various theories of attraction, hoping to address what they dub “the Hispanic problem.” For those following the pivot, here’s a quick user’s guide to the various camps:
Evolvers: There’s nothing like an election loss to make leaders in the party that had opposed even minor modifications to immigration rules finally see the light. House Speaker John Boehner, conceding that his party can too often sound downright mean, said he is “confident” that Republicans will move on comprehensive reform, which usually includes allowing illegal immigrants to stay in the country as guest workers.
Sean Hannity, the fiery Fox News commentator, told his audience after the election that “we gotta get rid of the immigration issue altogether.” And since he isn’t able to literally get rid of all immigrants, as they appear to be voting Americans, he, too, has “evolved.” Even Arizona’s Gov. Jan Brewer, whose support of a Draconian state law made her a national figure, says she is “fine and dandy” with comprehensive immigration reform.
Modified Reformers: Many in the party have been warning that the anti-immigrant attitude was not sustainable in the new America. Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (who has worked on a reform bill with New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer in the past and should get the “I told you so” prize) and the rising Cuban-American Senate stars Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas are using the post-election hangover to find their own versions of immigration reform, so as not to capitulate to the Democrats.
While there is tremendous momentum for some legislative fixes, the conservative House is likely to first approve a more streamlined citizenship path for educated and entrepreneurial immigrants, a modest first step.
Waiters: Some in the party seem content to delay coming up with a strategy until after Obama formally proposes a legal pathway for citizenship for the 12 million undocumented immigrants, probably in several months. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, whose parents are Indian immigrants, has suggested that a wait-and-see approach might be wise. He told Politico that while Republicans would consider the White House’s “comprehensive approach,” the GOP strategy might be as simple as to “stop being the stupid party.” Presumably, that means toning down the rhetoric.
Candidate searchers: Before figuring out exactly which way to go on immigration, some Republicans want to allow a de facto Hispanic standard-bearer to emerge from within their own party. While Rubio and Cruz are Latino, they are not of Mexican descent. It is not at all clear that Mexican-Americans will find much solace in their rise. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose wife is Mexican-born, is an important GOP voice on immigration issues; his eldest son, George P. Bush, is bilingual, lives in Texas, served in the Navy in Afghanistan and announced his candidacy on Wednesday for Texas land commissioner.
This multifaceted search for a way to soften the party’s hard edge on immigration has got to be frustrating; the reformers will be challenged by at least some of their supporters on almost every issue. There are still elements in the GOP who believe Romney was simply the wrong candidate, and that demographics aren’t primarily responsible for his defeat. But most Republicans know they need to modify their position on immigration in order to attract new Americans.
Their approach is cynical at times, realistic at others, but most definitely an evolution toward sounding less mean.
Juliette Kayyem is a national security and foreign policy columnist for The Boston Globe.