The GOP’s Future

07.03.13

The GOP’s Future: Move Right and Move White

Republicans used to do the Chamber of Commerce’s bidding. But on immigration reform, says Michael Tomasky, they’re ignoring the chamber and listening to radicals instead.

It’s an eternal verity of American politics: the Republicans are the party of big business. Democrats since Franklin Roosevelt have sneered it as a putdown, to which many Republicans respond with no shame, yes, we are, the business of America is business. And business, in Washington, means chiefly the United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, the two beefiest business lobbies in the city. But funny thing—the chamber and NAM support the Senate immigration bill that the House Republicans are going to kill. In addition, some prominent evangelical groups are pro-reform, too. Which makes me wonder: if the Republicans are no longer listening to these people, then to whom precisely are they listening, and what does that tell us about what kind of party this is becoming?

The chamber, NAM, and the evangelical groups have been in on the immigration discussions from the start. A great deal of the hard work here was done by congressional negotiators in conjunction with the chamber and the AFL-CIO, working through different categories of workers (high-skill, low-skill, guest) and arriving at language and numbers that suited all the interests at the table. Each of these groups has done the kind of outreach to its members that is vital in the case of big and controversial legislation like this. The Evangelical Immigration Table, a project of World Relief (which is an arm of the National Association of Evangelicals), persuaded pastors across the country to support reform.

There was a time in this country when the linked arms of those three groups would unquestionably have been joined by most Republicans on Capitol Hill. But that was long ago. Now the GOP is a different animal altogether.

And so the Chamber of Commerce—the Chamber of Commerce!—is a bunch of sell-outs. This isn’t the first time, by the way, that the chamber and the GOP have been at odds. The chamber has long supported substantial public spending on infrastructure. You might have thought that the fact that the chamber was for it would bring Republicans along. But these Republicans don’t listen to the chamber.

Instead, they are listening to the Tea Party. Back in 2010, the press tried to tell you that Tea Party people just cared about economics, but that’s dead wrong. As Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson showed in their book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, immigration is a huge issue to Tea Partiers, and along precisely the immigrants-are-freeloaders lines you’d expect. Remember when Mitt Romney’s attack on Rick Perry over immigration worked so well? This is why.

What we are watching here is absolutely historic.

And more disturbingly they’re listening to the likes of Peter Brimelow and Steve Sailer, two crackpot haters of nonwhite immigrants who’ve been at it for a couple of decades now. Now I can’t say for sure of course how many Republicans are reading their unhinged website, where one contributor recently dismissed the Evangelical Immigration Table as “Soros-funded,” an imprecation that in right-wing circles is about as ominous as you get and is meant to be read as “can’t be trusted.” But I can say this: the defeat in the House of immigration reform, on the explicit political grounds that “we” (the GOP) don’t “need” Latinos and can win in the future by just riling up the white vote—which is in fact the argument now—represents a mainstreaming of Brimelow and Sailer that would have been totally unimaginable a decade ago.

Business groups, like everyone I talk to who is pro-reform, hold out hope. But it’s a shaky kind of hope, as evidenced by one conversation I had yesterday with a source close to business groups. This person thought the odds of success in the House were “about 30 to 70.” Later in the conversation, he termed himself “optimistic.” If that counts as optimism, that tells us something. The key thing, this person said of the House Republicans, is “just getting them in the room” with senators in a conference committee.

He did correctly identify the hard part. But getting to the conference stage means that the House has to have passed its own bill, and one containing a path to citizenship that isn’t strewn with poison pills that make it impossible for the other side to support. And that’s the huge if.

What we are watching here is absolutely historic. The process by which the GOP has gone from “we must get right with Latinos” to “who needs ’em” has been ... well, not quite astonishing. Depressingly unsurprising, actually. But amazing all the same. If immigration is killed for the reasons stated, then the Republican Party has consciously made the decision to become a quasi-nationalist party. They’ll probably never sink to the level of a Le Pen or a Haider (I added that “probably” upon re-reading; you never quite know with these people). But they will have killed immigration reform twice in six years, opposing not just the usual suspects like La Raza but America’s top corporate interest groups. And they will have staked out their bet for their future: move right and move white. And this will be the year it all took hold.