I’ve had my differences of emphasis with Ross Douthat on the subject of Republican donors, but he nailed it today when he wrote:

a party that seems out of touch and out of date on basic pocketbook issues probably isn’t going to rebuild its support just by converging with the Democrats on gay marriage and immigration. To the extent that big-donor self-interest prevents a reckoning with this reality, it may prove a bigger problem for the G.O.P. in the long run than “the base” as it’s conventionally covered and understood.

And it is worse than that. The Republicans aren’t just getting bad advice from their donors and business elites. they are also getting lousy political advice from media that do not wish them well. I think that some kind of limited amnesty is both a good idea and is going to happen, but the attention that the amnesty issue has gotten from Republican politicos since the election has distorted our understanding of political trends. It is true that Romney did worse among Latinos in 2012 than McCain did in 2008, despite Romney having more favorable circumstances. But is also true that Romney did even worse among Asian-Americans than he did among Latinos. This is despite Asian-Americans ranking immigration near the bottom of their policy concerns. Why did Romney perform so similarly among Latinos and Asian-Americans? One clue is that both Latinos and Asian-Americans strongly supported Obamacare.

That doesn’t mean that Obamacare was the driving issue, but it is suggestive that the Republican economic message is just not appealing to these groups. My read is that the scare-language of “socialized medicine” just doesn’t work for post-1980 immigrant populations. The narrative of America as the best health care system in the world that can only be spoiled by big government works for people who have been socialized into the narrative. Post-1980 immigrant groups are much less likely to have been socialized into this narrative. The result is that a Republican health care message of repeal Obamacare + tort reform + nothing comes across as either nonsense or frigid indifference. Health care is just one example of how rhetorical tropes developed in the 1980s (or even earlier) are becoming effective with ever fewer people.

There are intra-coalitional reasons why Republican politicians might want to avoid a positive message on healthcare. The existing Republican activist base is much more enthusiastic and united around opposing socialized medicine than about enacting good policy (there might in fact be very little unity or even awareness of what might constitute good policy.) This negative orientation toward health care was regrettable, but it used to be a political winner. It isn’t a winner anymore. The sooner Republicans realize this and come up with a positive reform strategy that can gain support from the activist base while appealing to persuadables, the better.

This gets to the problem with the obsessive post-election focus on amnesty. Republicans just spent the last election seeming like the party of elite, high earner interest group politics. The solution that many Republicans have focused on is a policy that just happens to appeal to the financial interests of employers and the sensibilities of center-left journalists. Limited amnesty might be a good idea, but it doesn’t make Republicans look any more populist.  Republicans should be talking a lot more about health care and pro-family tax policy while supporting a limited amnesty. It would better reflect the policy priorities of the electorate and give the Republicans a message about how their policies would change people’s everyday lives.

Articles by Pete Spiliakos

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