Republicans' whites-only gambit will spell doom

Party may have claimed it'd be more inclusive, but now it's reversing course. The result: It will pay a huge price

Published August 7, 2013 12:30PM (EDT)

Michele Bachmann, Rush Limbaugh                             (Reuters/Jeff Haynes/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Michele Bachmann, Rush Limbaugh (Reuters/Jeff Haynes/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

It should go without saying that if House Republicans kill immigration reform, Democrats will make it the central issue of the midterm elections. That should be all the more obvious given that a bipartisan immigration bill already passed the Senate, and the Democrats desperately want the campaign to be a referendum on House Republicans.

Enter New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who implies that Democratic organizing around the failure of immigration reform will make liberals complicit in the GOP recession toward white nationalist politics:

[As New Yorker reporter Ryan] Lizza’s mention of the White House’s political strategy on immigration implicitly acknowledges, this “recipe” is one that left-of-center coalition politics bears a lot of responsibility for cooking up. The Democrats haven’t just been passive players in the recent racial polarization of the parties: Rather, they’ve embraced and furthered the trend, as a necessary part of making their new presidential-level “coalition of the ascendant” work.

It behooves me at this point to note that Douthat himself believes the GOP can't and shouldn't reduce its deficit with minority voters by backing immigration reform, and that its future viability rests with moderating its economic policy platform. But you go to war with the party you have and, given where things stand, this sounds an awful lot like an effort to let the party off the hook for walking back the one step it took toward rethinking its platform in the wake of President Obama's reelection.

Let's review.

After their drubbing in 2012, Republicans examined the wreckage and made two key, intertwined determinations: The party must be more inclusive (the word "inclusive" appears 12 times in the GOP's official postmortem [PDF], called the Growth and Opportunity Project), and congressional Republicans should support immigration reform.

Less than six months since the GOP published that retrospective, its prescriptions lie in tatters. The party's on the verge of killing immigration reform; it's reluctant to fix the weakened Voting Rights Act (thanks, SCOTUS!) leaving minority voters in Southern states vulnerable to a coming flood of suppression laws; and it has no interest at all in moderating its economic policies, which remain rooted in the idea that we already redistribute too much wealth to the poor.

So after feinting toward more inclusive policies, the GOP might actually change nothing, and have no choice but to deepen its strategy of maximizing white turnout and depressing the minority vote. Its transformation into a white-only party will be complete.

If that weren't inherently troubling, let alone difficult to execute, the party probably wouldn't have organized its postmortem report around precisely the opposite idea. The strategy pre-supposed that a lot of Republicans would support comprehensive, bipartisan immigration reform. And unless they were deluding themselves, they had to know that once the legislative efforts began in earnest, they were on the hook. Democrats would never let them off if they killed the project. They had to deliver.

But they might not deliver. The best we can hope for out of the House is a reform that weakens the key tradeoff in the Senate's bill: eventual citizenship for current immigrants in exchange for the kinds of border security provisions Republicans would have a hard time ever passing on their own.

To the extent that House Republicans support eventual citizenship for current immigrants at all -- and many do not -- most want to keep the path blocked until after the border has been somehow deemed secure. The charitable interpretation of this kind of "trigger" -- the kind endorsed by Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill. -- is that Republicans want to induce the executive branch to lock down the border as quickly as possible. The cynical interpretation is that Republicans want to lock in the border security gains, while back pocketing the option of reneging on citizenship later.

The party is at best frozen between inclusionary and exclusionary visions of its future, and isn't sure which one to embrace.

But the choice is theirs. And if they choose exclusion, it would be malpractice for Democrats to just pretend it didn't happen. The party's agenda will still represent voters of every ethnicity. And if the ensuing campaign drives some working-class and ethnically chauvinist whites out of the Democratic coalition, it won't be the result of a decision to purge voting blocs from the party. Only one party's thinking of doing that.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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Editor's Picks Hispanics Immigration Immigration Reform Race Republican Party Ross Douthat