By MICHAEL GERSON
WASHINGTON — Any Republican event convened by Rep. Steven King — he of “calves the size of cantaloupes” fame — could easily have degenerated into a festival of immigrant bashing. It is to the credit of the serious GOP presidential prospects in attendance that the Iowa Freedom Summit generally was not.
Yes, Donald Trump emerged from his stretch clown car to say that “half of them are criminals.” And King declared that protesting Dream Act supporters were from “the other planet.” But the Republican script in Iowa was mainly focused on criticizing President Obama’s immigration executive actions rather than negatively characterizing illegal immigrants themselves. Avoiding offensive language is admittedly a low bar. But it is progress for Republicans to realize that they are walking in a minefield instead of a meadow.
The greatest hazard to Republican prospects with rising demographic groups came in the form of an argument rather than an epithet. Former Sen. Rick Santorum made the case that the GOP should be “the party of the worker.” Which is better than being the party of disdain for “takers” and the “47 percent.” But Santorum went on to claim that immigration has depressed the earnings of native-born Americans. “We need to stand for an immigration policy,” he said, “that puts Americans and American workers first.”
The campaign slogan “America first,” it turns out, is already taken. But Santorum is proposing a serious response to the GOP’s national electoral challenge. Republicans, in this view, need to shift their focus away from high earners to struggling middle- and working-class families; and they also need to choose between courting the working class and courting Hispanic voters, because immigrants take jobs and depress wages at the low end. The party of the worker therefore must be the party of immigration restrictionism.
Santorum is often thoughtful; in this case, he is thoughtfully wrong. His economic case is overblown. Economists sift and dispute the evidence. But the long-term impact of immigration on native wages seems to be slight — slightly positive for those with a high school and some college education, slightly negative for those who don’t graduate from high school. These effects, however, are overwhelmed by other economic trends, such as the advance of technology and globalized labor markets. The white working class does have many problems, but competition from low-skilled immigrants is not among the biggest ones.
Effectively focusing on the white working class also buys into the notion that Republicans can win the presidency by running up the white vote. This might, for all I know, work in the next presidential election. If (a significant “if”) Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee and gets 80 percent of the minority vote, Republicans would probably need (in an estimate by National Journal’s Ron Brownstein) about 63 percent of white voters. (The highest percentage Republicans have ever gotten was Ronald Reagan’s 64 percent in 1984.)
This is not impossible, with the right conditions and candidate. But because the electorate is growing less white over time — by about two percentage points every four years — this strategy becomes harder and harder to implement. Mitt Romney won the white vote in a landslide — 59 percent — and lost his election handily. Republicans, in other words, need the appeal of Reagan at his height to narrowly win the presidency in the current electorate. Eventually, even that will not be enough.
Any strategy that pits the white working class against immigrants should also attract heightened moral scrutiny. It is one thing for a political analyst to recommend a get-out-the-whites strategy. But when this thought is consciously entertained by a politician, something disturbing has happened. We have too much tragic history with political lines drawn along ethnic and racial faults.
The issue of immigration has a way of clarifying some of the deepest beliefs of a political movement. Does it regard outsiders as potential threats or potential allies? Does it empathize or dehumanize? The public character of a political figure is often judged by voters — especially immigrant voters — intuitively, by signals and symbols. When arriving at a party, you generally know immediately if you are welcome or not.
No effective reconstitution of the Republican Party’s appeal can begin with pessimism about the drawing power of Republican ideals. A party that has lost the ambition to convince is a party in decline.