As lawmakers move forward in crafting an immigration reform bill, one widespread assumption has been that demographic political pressures – specifically, the Republican Party's need to win over more Latino voters, or risk becoming a permanent minority – are giving this effort a greater chance of passage than any in recent years.
Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) minced no words on Monday when unveiling the broad outlines agreed to by a bipartisan group of eight senators: "The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens," he said. "And we realize this is an issue in which we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens."
But increasingly, many others are arguing that fixing the GOP's so-called "Hispanic problem" won't be nearly that simple – and that Republicans shouldn't go along with immigration reform purely in an effort to win more votes, since that alone is unlikely to convert many Latinos to the Republican Party. Tellingly, one GOP Senate aide spelled out this political calculus for The National Review: "Don’t walk the plank on immigration because Romney only got 29 percent of the Hispanic vote, and sell out on deeply held conservatives principles to bump that up to 33 percent."
According to this line of analysis, even if a comprehensive immigration bill passes, Hispanics are likely to continue to align themselves politically with Democrats because of greater ideological compatibility on a whole range of issues – the biggest of which is a more liberal vision of government that includes support for more services.
Writing in The Washington Post this week, Jamelle Bouie argued: "Latinos are more liberal than the median voter. According to the most recent Pew poll on these questions (released last year), 75 percent of Hispanics say they support bigger government with more services, compared to 41 percent of the general population."
Nor is it just support for bigger government drawing Hispanics to the Democrats. Over at National Journal, Michael Catalini points out that pre-election polling showed Latinos preferred President Obama over Mitt Romney on everything from the economy to foreign policy to women's issues. He adds: "Even on social issues where there is perceived to be a natural fit among religious Hispanic voters and the GOP, a divide exists. A majority of Hispanic voters now back gay marriage, according to a Pew Research Center Poll, for instance."
Increasingly, this argument – that passing a comprehensive immigration bill isn't likely to help Republicans win over Hispanic voters – is being echoed by those on the right who oppose reform.
Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, in an interview Tuesday with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R), said he saw little political upside for Republicans in offering a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants, but a potentially huge benefit for Democrats, asking: "If 70 percent of the Hispanic vote went Republican, do you think the Democrats would be for any part of this legislation?"
So who's right? Those arguing that Republicans need to pass immigration reform because they need to win more Hispanic support, or those arguing that the bill won't really do anything to achieve that goal?
Frankly, probably both. Immigration reform alone won't create a new generation of Republican Hispanics. But for the GOP to continue to be seen as the party that's blocking reform is a political liability that Republicans can't afford any longer. And even if a bill only moves a relatively small number of votes in the short term, it still could be an essential component of a longer-term image makeover for the GOP, into a party that's more inclusive and minority-friendly.
As Senator Rubio, one of the group of eight senators working together to craft a bill, told Limbaugh: "Our argument about limited government is always harder to sell than a government program." But by getting the immigration issue out of the way, Republicans may have an easier time reaching out to Hispanics on economic matters – where Rubio believes there is a great deal of natural sympathy.
"I see it every day firsthand from people that have been here about eight to 10 years," he said. "All of a sudden, they have their own business, they have a bunch of permits that they have to comply with, a bunch of complicated laws. Their taxes just went up a couple of weeks ago even though President Obama has been saying it's only gonna go up on the rich – and the light bulb is going off that ... Big Government means less opportunity for them."
If nothing else, passing immigration reform may create enough goodwill to give Republicans like Rubio a better chance to try to sell that vision.