The annual Conservative Political Action Conference was stimulating. Some writers took the opportunity to chart the decline of CPAC from the days of Ronald Reagan to the present of Sebastian Gorka. One speaker at CPAC criticized former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele for having been hired only “because he's a black guy.” But if we want to assess how the GOP and CPAC took such a precipitous fall, it might be useful to apportion some of the blame to Steele’s successor as RNC chairman, Reince Priebus.
First, one could venture a defense of Michael Steele. He seems to have made something of a mess of GOP fundraising, but that didn’t stop the GOP from making major gains during the 2010 midterm elections. After taking over the RNC in 2011, Reince Priebus got along better with the donors—but that didn’t prevent the Republicans from losing the 2012 presidential election and twenty-five out of thirty-three Senate races that year. Some blame outlandish Tea Party candidates for two of those losses, but setting those aside, the Priebus-led Republicans would still have lost twenty-three out of thirty-three Senate races.
The lasting damage was done by Priebus after that lost election. He commissioned an “autopsy” whose authors found that the Republican economic agenda was politically sound, but the party needed to adopt “comprehensive immigration reform” (a euphemism for upfront amnesty for current unauthorized immigrants plus expanded future low-skill immigration) in order to win over younger voters and nonwhites.
In hindsight, the 2012 RNC autopsy looks like a moral disaster. It was a disaster in part because it was based on a lie. The 2012 presidential exit poll was clear that only 34 percent of voters thought that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s policies would benefit the middle class, whereas 53 percent thought his policies would benefit primarily the rich. The GOP had an economic policy and message problem, and it is not credible that Priebus and the authors of the autopsy didn’t know that.
Perhaps more importantly, Priebus and the authors of the autopsy invented a false choice for both conservatism and the Republican Party. There were two obvious pools of swing voters whom Republicans could have pursued. The first was the more moderate of what Reihan Salam calls “newcomers.” These are Americans who were either born in another country or who have at least one parent who was born in another country. (This category includes this author and most of President Trump’s children.) The second category comprised secular, economically moderate, working-class white voters who felt ignored by both parties. An intelligent party would have tried to make gains with both of these groups.
The Priebus Republicans made a bumbling attempt to build a majority party by adding a larger share of newcomer votes to the traditional GOP constituencies—and they intended to do it by adding amnesty and expanded low-skill guest worker programs to an agenda of high-earner tax cuts and reductions in old-age entitlements.
This attempt was bumbling not only because the immigration portion of the agenda was enormously unpopular with the current Republican base, but because parts of the agenda were unpopular even with the intended audience of newcomers. It turned out that Hispanics (whether foreign or native-born) were no more likely to support increased immigration than were white Americans. More recent polling revealed that overwhelming majorities of whites, Hispanics, and African Americans favored reforming our immigration policies to prioritize skills, rather than family connections. The Gang of Eight immigration bill—comprehensive immigration reform of the kind recommended by the Priebus autopsy—moved policy in the opposite direction of what the public wanted, by increasing primarily low-skill immigration.
About the only center-right constituency for the autopsy’s proposals were the business lobbies who wanted an expanded pool of low-skill workers. This is perhaps the greatest weakness of Priebus Republicanism. It offered newcomers a trade: The traditional GOP would get an economic agenda that amounted to interest-group politics for the businessmen who had “built that,” and newcomers would get identity politics in the form of increased immigration. But it turned out that even the identity politics was really another form of interest-group politics for the right-leaning affluent. For the business lobbies and the (often genuinely idealistic) Republican leadership, it was the best kind of compromise: the kind where they ended up getting everything they wanted. It almost seemed too good to be true.
And it was. Trying to expand low-skill immigration didn’t bring a bunch of new voters to the GOP, but it did produce a bitter division between Republican leaders and Republican voters. It also created an open field for Donald Trump to rally economically moderate working-class white swing voters who were being neglected by the allegedly thoughtful and knowledgeable Republican leadership.
The conventional Republicans had offered nothing to these swing voters except what Henry Olsen called the promise that, if your boss gets a bigger tax cut, he might put off closing down your factory for a couple of years. You might notice that this wasn’t even a promise. The conventional Republicans thought these disaffected working-class white voters were disposable due to demographic change (Hillary Clinton thought the same thing). It turned out that there were enough of these formerly Obama-supporting working-class white voters in the Midwest for Trump to win a narrow Electoral College victory.
Reince Priebus went on to become Donald Trump’s first White House Chief of Staff. As one savors the irony, it is worth noting that we still face the same false choice that Priebus offered in the aftermath of the 2012 election.
Priebus and the business lobbies would prefer an alliance with the newcomers in which the business lobbies get everything they want in return for some identity-politics gestures. But Priebus and the business lobbies will accept an alliance with Trump’s disaffected, working-class whites, even if it means putting off entitlement cuts indefinitely. The business lobbies still get tax cuts, and maybe Trump, in a moment of distraction, will sign on for an immigration “compromise” that gives the business lobbies the expanded low-skill immigration they desire. Trump will mostly sign whatever legislation a Republican Congress produces. It isn’t ideal, but it’s better than nothing, and when Trump eventually leads the GOP to electoral disaster, the elites will demand that the GOP go back to the same strategy that produced Trump in the first place.
The choice between disaffected working-class whites and politically moderate newcomers is largely a false one. It is a choice only because the Republican leadership demands, as a nonnegotiable, an economic agenda that is popular with neither newcomers nor working-class white swing voters (nor even core Republican voters, as it turns out). The polls indicate that newcomers and working-class white swing voters have plenty of room for agreement on policy, but Priebus-style Republicanism inflames both sides by trying to force an unpopular immigration expansion and eliciting a hostile and suspicious restrictionist backlash.
Reihan Salam writes that politicians will have to “reconcile the clashing interests of newcomers and the established.” That is true, but the allegedly responsible and moderate Republicans have been exacerbating those clashes by seeking to attach an extreme immigration policy to an extremely unpopular economic agenda. The self-proclaimed reasonable Republicans who are posing as firefighters are among our busiest political arsonists.
Our responsible Republicans could help turn down the temperature by being more genuinely moderate on policy. They could try to assure both newcomers and disaffected working-class whites by endorsing policies (like some combination of wage subsidies, child tax credits, and subsidized catastrophic healthcare coverage) that assure Americans will have some degree of financial security if they put in a hard day’s work for their families. They can offer meaningful immigration compromises that grant amnesties to some of our unauthorized immigrants while transitioning to a system of immigration based on skills and English proficiency.
Instead, the decent, thoughtful, intelligent Republicans joined a “compromise” that would have extended a virtual amnesty (in the form of deprioritized enforcement) to unauthorized immigrants who haven’t even gotten here yet. They said it was all just a big misunderstanding. We understand them all too well, but that doesn’t mean they can’t change (or be replaced).
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.
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Photo by Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons. Image cropped.