Is It Too Late for the GOP to Save Itself with Latinos?

Since the 2012 election, there's a story we've heard over and over about Republicans and the Latino vote. After spending years bashing immigrants, the party got hammered among this increasingly vital demographic group this election cycle, whereupon the party's more pragmatic elements woke up and realized if they don't convince Latinos the GOP isn't hostile to them, they could make it impossible to win presidential elections. They've got one shot on immigration reform. Pass it, and they can stanch the bleeding. Kill it, and they lock in their dreadful performance among Latinos for generations.

This story is mostly true. But I'm beginning to wonder if it isn't already too late for the GOP to win Latinos over. It's going a little far to suggest that Latinos could become the equivalent of African Americans, giving 90 percent or more of their votes to Democrats in every election. But is it possible that so much damage has already been done that even if immigration reform passes, Republicans won't see any improvement in their standing among Latinos?

Since we're talking about what might happen in the future, this is all speculative, and it's a little ridiculous to predict that anything that happens now will hold for "generations." One generation, maybe, but nobody can say what the political landscape will look like in 30 or 40 years. But let's think about how this is likely to play out in the near term.

If immigration reform fails because of anti-immigrant sentiment from the GOP's right wing, that's obviously a disaster for them. But even if it passes, that might be only a marginally better outcome. The debate itself could be making things worse by giving the anti-reform forces a bigger platform to express their views, even if other elements of the party are trying to put on a friendlier face. And if a bill does pass, who's going to get the credit? Barack Obama, of course. It'll be trumpeted in the media as the major legislative accomplishment of his second term (either the first, or the only, depending on how the next few years go), and much of the story will be about him for no reason other than that he's the president and that's how these things work; the president is the protagonist of most of the stories told about what happens in Washington, whether he deserves to be or not.

Furthermore, the legislation will almost certainly pass with the votes of almost every Democrat in both houses of Congress, and over the opposition of most Republicans. It doesn't need  many Republican votes, and for every Republican officeholder who wants to see it pass, there are probably two or three who feel enough pressure from the party's right wing that they'll end up voting against it, if for no other reason than to forestall a primary challenge— the primary thing every Republican member of Congress fears these days.

So how is this debate going to look to the public as the vote approaches? On one side you'll have Obama and the Democrats, along with a few Republicans; on the other side you'll have a whole lot of Republicans, some of whom will no doubt continue to say offensive things about immigrants. For good measure, many people will assume, whether it's true or not, that the Democrats are sincere in their support of immigration reform, while the Republicans who join them are doing it just to save their political skins. When it's over, Obama will declare victory, and everyone will know that it happened because the intransigent Republicans were defeated. Some conservative Republicans running in primaries around the country will still see immigrant-bashing as a potentially fruitful campaign tactic, giving voters the occasional helpful reminder about where much of the party stands. And in the next election (and the one after that, and the one after that), the default assumption among Latino voters will continue to be that your average Republican despises and distrusts them. That isn't to say that any individual Republican candidate can't overcome that assumption and win the votes of significant numbers of Latinos, but it will be a very difficult thing to do, and most will fail when they try.

So at this point, it certainly looks like the two potential outcomes are that conservative Republicans succeed in killing immigration reform, which is disastrous for the GOP, or it passes, which is only a little bit better. If they're going to change their image among Latino voters, it's going to have to be a long-term project.

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