Jeb Bush, considered a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2016, had a strange week. He was on record as favoring a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but came out against such a path in a book soon to be published. This was viewed, correctly, as a major flip-flop. The reason for it was shocking in its candor: he said the book was written when sentiment in the Republican Party was markedly more hostile to immigration—in effect admitting that his new position simply echoes the party line. (But in what may be a record 360 turn around, just today Jeb reversed course again and says he favors a path to citizenship.)
Who knows exactly what he was thinking. Maybe he was floating a trial balloon to see how this change would be met both within and outside the GOP. I’ve never thought his prospects for the presidency have been high, but it seems clear that on this issue he miscalculated and his stock has been diminished. Nobody likes such bald-faced opportunism, even if we’ve come to expect it from our politicians.
But the bind that Jeb finds himself in illuminates exactly what the GOP faces in what may turn out to be the most important political issue of this year, and for subsequent election cycles as well.
To begin, immigration reform is popular; significant majorities support some form of path to citizenship for the nation’s approximately 12 million illegal aliens. Most are Hispanics and can’t currently vote, but many of their relatives can—and they increasingly view the GOP as not only hostile to immigration reform, but excessively nativist and racist.
This puts Republicans on the wrong side of a rapidly growing demographic. Even if they got on the right side, and supported comprehensive immigration reform, there is little chance of significantly improving their political prospects with this group. Most young Latinos are socially liberal and support a robust role for the government in providing safety nets and services; they’re strongly Democratic and likely to stay that way. Even if Republicans support immigration reform, its passage would be viewed mostly as a Democratic victory, in a bill signed by a Democratic president. You can be sure that President Obama and Senate Democrats would claim as much credit as possible and make it a centerpiece of future campaigns.
Making the situation even worse, many Republicans in the House will remain opposed to a path to citizenship; so any bill that passes will do so only because of Democratic support, denying the GOP any clear political upside.
To summarize, the immigration debate is likely going to expose large fissures in the GOP. The Party’s more nativist and racist elements will be on full display. Even if some major figures in the party ultimately support the bill, it will likely be viewed as a Democratic victory. Even worse, if the GOP strongly opposes the bill and it goes down in defeat, this will surely insure another devastating loss of the Hispanic vote in 2016—without which it will sooner or later become virtually impossible to win a national election in the United States.