Steven Senne / AP

The GOP's mixed message to minorities

Party chairman courts blacks and Latinos as House Republicans find new ways to alienate them

August 6, 2014 6:00AM ET

The cognitive dissonance of the Republican Party is something to behold.

Consider that national party chairman Reince Priebus was launching a Hispanic Advisory Council in Virginia on the same day that House Republicans passed bills to speed up deportations of unaccompanied Central American children and young people brought without papers to the United States years ago.

Consider as well that as Priebus was reaching out to black Americans at the National Urban League and the National Association of Black Journalists last week, House Republicans voted to sue the country’s first black president for alleged abuse of executive authority. Some in the GOP hope — and others fear — that the lawsuit is a prelude to impeachment.

The autopsy Priebus commissioned after Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election to Barack Obama was unsparing in its message: The party desperately needed to build relations with minorities and back comprehensive immigration reform that offers “positive solutions” (PDF) responsive to the concerns of Latino, Asian and black communities. Priebus is trying to follow that script. But as last week’s behavior demonstrates, the House is determined to thwart him — and the party’s future — by moving in the opposite direction.

Downward trajectory

Given demographic realities, the choice for the GOP is (or should be) clear: Follow the post-Romney blueprint or lose elections indefinitely into the future. The cost of ignoring minorities and their concerns will be measurable not just in terms of presidential elections. There are also close House, Senate and gubernatorial races as soon as this fall in California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina and elsewhere that could hinge on Latino and black voter registration and turnout.

The GOP’s trajectory over the past decade, as traced in exit polls, should be cautionary. George W. Bush, with his “compassionate conservative” pitch and support for comprehensive immigration reform, won about 4 in 10 Hispanic votes in 2004 — a record for the party. Another strong backer of reform, 2008 nominee John McCain, won 35 percent. Romney, hostile to reform, dropped to 27 percent. All the while, Latinos were steadily growing as a share of the electorate — from 8 percent in 2004 to 9 percent in 2008 and 10 percent in 2012.

Throughout all these phases, there has been substantial support among Republican legislators and governors for the young people known as Dreamers — children who were brought to the United States without papers, grew up here, graduated from high school and then, because of harsh immigration laws, found themselves unable to pursue a future in the only country they knew.

More than half a million of these youths have applied for and received temporary renewable legal status under Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that defers deportation for children who arrived by 2007. House Republicans voted last week to kill that program — the price leaders paid to win conservative votes for a separate measure to bolster border security and change a 2008 law that entitles the unaccompanied Central American children who have recently flooded the border to an asylum hearing before they are sent home. The changes make it easier to deport them.

There are at least three ways in which these so-called accomplishments are counterproductive. First of all, Republicans have moved the spotlight off Obama’s problems — including his belated response to a border crisis that his administration was first warned about years ago and the risky executive steps he may take on his own, given congressional inaction on a larger immigration overhaul.

The House’s most recent moves will excite the GOP base this year in elections the party would have won anyway, but alienate minority voters in the 2016 Senate and presidential races.

Second, they have showcased the GOP’s inconsistencies, internal conflicts and empathy gap. Many in the party are blaming the influx of young Central Americans on DACA, but that’s a dubious proposition, given that the surge was well underway before DACA began in June 2012. Some Republicans seem to be suggesting that DACA should be ended not on its merits but because it is being misrepresented by bad actors in other countries — in this case, coyotes, or human smugglers, drumming up business by deceitfully telling Central Americans that children will receive amnesty like those in the DACA program.

Third, by broadcasting such unforgiving views on immigration, Republicans have mobilized a potentially huge opposition force. No one has more at stake than the young people in school and the military who, under GOP policies, would be unable to renew their residency permits and would have to return to the shadows. Beyond that, the GOP risks energizing the 62 percent (PDF) of Latinos who have an undocumented friend, relative or co-worker in the country. The issue is personal to them, and they follow it closely on Spanish-language media, where it is covered, as former Obama strategist David Plouffe put it Monday at a Politico Playbook event, “as intensively as the Super Bowl is on ESPN.”

Alienating their own

The House’s actions have not only angered immigrant communities; they have also turned off moderates and drawn a strong rebuke from The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, which assailed “the Deportation Republicans” for causing the latest immigration meltdown.

“The GOP again gave the country the impression that its highest policy priority is to deport as many children as rapidly as possible,” the Journal editors wrote. “A party whose preoccupation is deporting children is going to alienate many conservatives, never mind minority voters.”

In a frustrated tweet after the anti-DACA vote, Republican strategist Ana Navarro called it “dumb symbolism” that is “indefensible.” It won’t become law, she said, but it will antagonize Latinos, energize the Democratic base and embolden the party’s “No Caucus,” as she calls the GOP’s my-way-or-the-highway purists.

Minority backlash has already damaged the GOP. Some election experts say the party’s attempts to restrict voting through voter registration and ID requirements in swing states drove up black turnout in 2012. Others are convinced that Romney’s tough language on immigration led to higher Latino turnout and to his abysmal share of the Latino vote.

The House’s most recent moves will excite the GOP base and swell victory margins this year in elections the party would have won anyway, Republican strategist Mike Murphy said Sunday on NBC. He predicted the real threat will become apparent in the 2016 Senate and presidential races, when there will be much larger turnouts by the minority voters his party is alienating in droves. “We’re playing with nitroglycerin here,” he said. “This is very dangerous stuff.”

But such alarms are going unheeded by conservatives who have won their jobs by holding hard-line positions on issues that affect minorities. The marquee figure in that category is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. In his second high-profile intervention with House Republicans, Cruz encouraged them last week to kill the DACA program. And just as he did last year, when he pushed them to risk a government shutdown by voting to defund the Affordable Care Act, Cruz got what he wanted. His iconic status among tea party conservatives reinvigorated, he headed late last week for the first of two weekends this month in Iowa, where presidential nomination races begin.

The charismatic Texan is on the verge of what now seems inevitable: a headline-making journey through the 2016 presidential primary season. But the better the news becomes for him, the worse it is for his party.

Jill Lawrence, the author of the Brookings Institution’s Profiles in Negotiation series, is a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor and a member of USA Today’s board of contributors.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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