Tea Party's moment of truth: Bush, Walker & the fight for the soul of the GOP

Two recent stories offer a preview of the all-out brawl over immigration that will inevitably engulf the GOP

Published March 18, 2015 5:49PM (EDT)

Scott Walker, Jeb Bush                          (AP/Cliff Owen/Reuters/David Manning/Photo montage by Salon)
Scott Walker, Jeb Bush (AP/Cliff Owen/Reuters/David Manning/Photo montage by Salon)

Last week, I kvetched about the way the national political press was covering the Hillary Clinton e-mail pseudo-scandal. To me, it was a strikingly clear example of the media succumbing to its worst instincts by allowing itself to become part of the story and engaging in the kind of meta reporting that Paul Krugman has rightly compared to theater criticism. “Instead of telling us what candidates are actually saying,” Krugman wrote, the political journalists guilty of theater criticism “tell us how it went over, and how they think it affects the horse race.” In other words, they answer a question readers never asked.

I still believe everything I wrote in that piece, but I realize now that there is one crucial element of the relationship between Clinton and the press that I accidentally left out. It’s a complaint for which I’ll confess to harbor some sympathy. Namely, it is the dread and anger that overcomes many campaign journalists when they’re confronted with the prospect of spending the next 2 years of their lives following around a Bush and a Clinton vying to be president. That’s something many campaign reporters have spent more than enough time doing already, and they’re not happy about having to do it again.

As annoying and dispiriting as the most-likely presidential matchup is, though, it’s hardly an excuse for bad work. Besides, there’s plenty of time between now and November 2016; and there are plenty of interesting stories to be written about the social and economic forces that often determine who gets to be president. Like the escalating tension over immigration between the Republican Party’s grassroots and elite, for example. That’s been paralyzing the GOP for a while now already, but as we get closer to Iowa caucuses, it’ll only get worse.

Now, when people talk about the GOP’s internal schism over immigration, they usually break it down using this essential framework: The Tea Party wing hates reform because it thinks it’s an elaborate Democratic plot to secure Latino-American votes and grow the state. The establishment wing, meanwhile, supports reform because large corporations and Chamber of Commerce types like the idea of getting even more cheap labor without the legal headaches. Right now, Jeb Bush is the reformers’ preferred presidential nominee. And it’s looking like Gov. Scott Walker, who recently flip-flopped to oppose immigration reform, will be the anti-reformers’ champion.

That general schema contains a lot of truth. But reality is, as always, a bit more complicated. For one thing, there’s a significant chunk of the Tea Party that is either in favor of reform or at least not particularly opposed to it; the Koch brothers fit that bill. Ditto Rand Paul. For another, while there’s no doubt an amoral economic motivation behind much of the establishment’s pro-reform lobbying, they’re also motivated by more cosmopolitan concerns. The GOPers who favor reform are more like the kind of conservatives you’ll meet on New York’s Upper East Side than the ones you’ll find in the Arizona exurbs. To put it bluntly, they find the anti-reformers’ brand of populism to be rather gauche.

The most important aspect to the GOP divide over immigration that the conventional wisdom misses, however, is this: Both sides hold the position they do because they are, in their minds, trying to fend off an existential threat to the Republican Party as they know it. But they reach opposite conclusions because they can’t agree about what, exactly, the Republican Party is. Does the GOP exist as a traditional political party, in the sense that it is a collection of different groups that have shared interests and who seek to make them real through public policy? Or is the GOP an ethno-nationalist vehicle designed to save, preserve and, ultimately, redeem the U.S.’s besieged population of “Real Americans”?

If the answer is the former, if the Republican Party is more or less a normal Western political party, then the argument for immigration reform is obvious. Bush might be benefitting from comparisons to his brother (one could say he’s floating on the soft bigotry of low expectations) but he’s not stupid. And as Michael Schiavo will tell you, he’s no bleeding heart. But he can read demographic projections and Electoral College charts just like anyone else. He knows that if the GOP is to be the national party it’s been throughout most of his life — i.e., one that is competitive in the one truly national race, which is that for president — it’s got to get right with Latino voters.

But if the GOP is what most of the Tea Party thinks, if it’s indeed a kind of militant, Christian and ethno-nationalist vehicle for Real Americans (or, as an historian might call them, the “volk”) then the argument for opposing “amnesty” is no less intuitive. If America cannot be America unless its population looks the same way it did in the 1980s, then ushering in millions of Latino citizens — and encouraging the arrival of millions more — is indeed a “game over” threat.  And any Republican who argues otherwise is not only wrong but is indeed a traitor to conservatism, which, in this mindset, has become synonymous with America itself.

How does this play out in the real world? Well, until the campaign is really happening in earnest, it’ll manifest through tempest in a teapot stories like this one about a conservative political operative who got booted from the Walker team for complaining about the outsize influence of Iowa in the GOP primary, a lily-white state where immigration reform is especially unpopular. Or this one about onetime Slate blogger and professional contrarian Mickey Kaus, who quit his gig at the Daily Caller because his boss, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, didn’t want him writing pieces attacking Roger Ailes’s channel for not being anti-immigrant enough. And remember: The campaign hasn’t even really started.

So, yes, I get why my colleagues are exasperated already with Campaign 2016. As one friend said to me with knowing hyperbole, the idea of spending 2 years on Jeb vs. Hillary appears to him to be the journalistic equivalent of a slow march toward certain death. But in the months and years to come, there will be a lot of bloodshed in the GOP over the party’s stance on immigration. And it’ll be a lot more interesting than bickering over e-mails.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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