Is Immigration To Republicans What Slavery Was To The Whigs?

Bill Scher

Yesterday, Sen. Marco Rubio was questioned on-air by a perplexed Rush Limbaugh about the bipartisan Senate immigration reform bill. The tone was gentle, but the gulf between the two was so wide, it may mark the beginning of a fundamental rift that will break the Republican Party in two, and render it extinct.

Throughout the interview Rubio kept trying to explain the merits of policy, while Rush complained about the politics. His first “question” was really a statement: “I’m having trouble seeing how this benefits Republicans.”

Later he fretted, “so many people are scared to death, Senator, that the Republican Party is committing suicide, that we’re going to end up legalizing nine million automatic Democrat voters.”

But Rush and Rubio don’t have a mere tactical disagreement. They have diametrically opposed worldviews regarding the meaning of the growing Latino electorate.

Rubio took pains to say his motivation is “to solve this problem” and not “political reasons.” But as Rush’s obsession with the political implications wore him down, Rubio offered that Republicans must find a way to connect with Latinos: “every political movement — conservatism included — depends on the ability to convince people that do not agree with you now to agree with you in the future.”

Rush, however, argued that for Republicans to pursue the Latino vote inherently means sacrificing conservative anti-government principles:

…I see polling data again that suggests that 70% of the Hispanic population in the country believes that government is the primary source of prosperity. I don’t, therefore, understand this contention that Hispanics are conservatives-in-waiting…

…We seem to be wanting to reach out to Hispanics. Once we do everything we do to reach out to Hispanics, how can we ever reform welfare? How can we reform anything that we might want to change if it’s the product of reaching out to Hispanics, giving them what we think they want in order to get their votes, when they’re already gonna vote Democrat?

Rush, of course, has an incredibly simplistic and bigoted understanding of the Latino vote. He says later, “They are being supported. They are able to live sufficiently well enough that getting a job is not that important, not nearly as important. It’s a cultural thing that’s happening here.”

But there is some grain of truth to the notion that Republicans can’t connect with many Latino voters (or any other non-right-wing voters) with being able to offer a vision of government that is not nihilistic. Most folks want a government that does something, not Bush-style government that stands on the sidelines until the economy implodes.

And in fact, the official Republican Party 2012 “autopsy” recognizes this, arguing that “we must make sure that the government works for those truly in need, helping them so they can quickly get back on their feet,” and quoting a committee member saying, “There are some people who need the government.”

Rush and his ilk are vehemently against any such recalibration of conservatism. Now Rush is declaring that immigration reform is synonymous with it.

Yet the Republican Party leadership is squarely with Rubio, understanding that they have to shed their anti-immigrant stigma if they are ever to become a majority party again.

Team Rubio can swear and up and down immigration reform does not mean an abandonment of conservative principles. But Rush wasn’t buying it.

Which leaves me with this question: will the anti-immigrant backlash be strong enough to propel a  credible 2016 president candidate (in other words, not Tom Tancredo) to challenge Rubio and the pro-immigrant GOP establishment?

And if so, will that create a fracture that cannot be healed?

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