You, unsuspecting citizen, probably take the view that the Republican Party is too white. It’s the conventional wisdom, after all, and last year’s election results would seem to have proven the point resoundingly. But you’re obviously not up with the newest thinking in some conservative quarters, which is that the party isn’t white enough, and that the true and only path to victory in the future is to get whiter still. Some disagree, which gives us the makings of a highly entertaining intra-GOP race war playing out as we head into 2016. But given this mad party’s recent history, which side would you bet on winning?
The situation is this. The immigration reform bill passed the Senate yesterday. It will now go to the House. A few weeks ago, as I read things, there were occasional and tepid signals that the House would not take up the Senate bill. Now, by contrast, those signals are frequent and full-throated. For example, yesterday Peter Roskam, a deputy GOP whip in the House, said this: “It is a pipe dream to think that [the Senate] bill is going to go to the floor and be voted on. The House is going to move through in a more deliberative process.”
“Deliberative process” probably means, in this case, killing the legislation. House conservatives, National Journal reports, are increasingly bullish on the idea that they may be able to persuade John Boehner to drop the whole thing.
Last December, such an outcome was supposed to mean disaster for the Republicans. But now, some say the opposite. Phyllis Schlafly and talk-radio opponents of the bill like Laura Ingraham have been saying for a while now that the party doesn’t need Latino votes, it just needs to build up the white vote. And now, they have the social science to prove it, or the “social science” to “prove” it.
Sean Trende, the conservative movement’s heavily asterisked answer to Nate Silver (that is to say, Silver got everything right, and Trende got everything wrong), came out with an analysis this week, headlined “Does GOP Have to Pass Immigration Reform?,” showing that by golly no, it doesn’t. You can jump over there yourself and study all his charts and graphs, but the long and short of it is something like this. Black turnout and Democratic support have both been unusually high in the last two elections, which is true; Democrats have been steadily losing white voters, which is also true; if you move black turnout back down to 2004-ish levels and bump up GOP margins among whites (by what strikes me as a wildly optimistic amount), you reach White Valhalla. Somehow or another, under Trende’s “racial polarization scenario,” it’ll be 2044 before the Democrats again capture 270 electoral votes. Thus is the heat of Schlafly’s rhetoric cooled and given fresh substance via the dispassionate tools of statistics.
Karl Rove says this is bunk. He wrote in The Wall Street Journal yesterday that to win the White House without more Latino support, a Republican candidate would have to equal Ronald Reagan’s 1984 total among whites, which was 63 percent. Rove thinks this unlikely—Trende thinks it’s pessimistic—and counsels some Latino reach-out (naturally, none of them ever says anything about black reach-out). The party used to listen to Rove, but most of them have zoomed well past him to the twilight zone of the far, far right.
These Republicans and the people they represent—that is, the sliver of people they care about representing—don’t want any outreach. They almost certainly won’t let a path to citizenship get through the House. And they’ll attack minorities in other ways, too. It’s been mostly civil rights advocates who’ve denounced the Supreme Court’s Voting Rights Act decision, and one can obviously see why. But trust me, that decision, as Bloomberg’s Josh Green shrewdly noted the day it came down, is a “poisoned chalice” for the GOP.
Why? Just look at what’s already happened since the decision was announced—the party is launching voter-suppression drives in six of the nine freshly liberated states. All the states, of course, are down South. These drives might “work.” But they will attract an enormous amount of negative publicity, and they’ll probably induce massive backlashes and counter-movements. This effort will lead to even greater distrust of the GOP by people of color, and it will reinforce the captive Southern-ness of the party, making it even more Southern than it already is. And Republicans won’t stop, because they can’t stop. Race baiting is their crack pipe.
And here’s the worst part of this story. If the House Republicans kill immigration reform, and Republican parties across the South double down to keep blacks from voting, then they really will need to jack up the white vote—and especially the old white vote—in a huge way to be competitive in 2016 and beyond. Well, they’re not going to do that by mailing out Lawrence Welk CDs. They’re going to run heavily divisive and racialized campaigns, worse than we’ve ever seen out of Nixon or anyone. Their only hope of victory will be to make a prophet of Trende—that is, reduce the Democrats’ share of the white vote to something in the mid- to low-30 percent range. That probably can’t happen, but there’s only one way it might. Run the most racially inflamed campaign imaginable.
That’s the near-term future we’re staring at. We can take satisfaction in the fact that it’s bad for them, but unfortunately, it’s not so good for the country.