Al Cardenas, head of the American Conservative Union, was quoted in Politico as saying of the Republicans, “Our party needs to realize that it’s too old and too white and too male, and it needs to figure out how to catch up with the demographics of the country before it’s too late.”
The exact role of demographic shifts in the 2012 election has been the subject of some debate, but there’s no question that improving the Republican outreach to every demographic group is a generally good strategy, particularly since the core message of conservatism is that its ideals are universally applicable. Collectivism is inherently divisive and feral; enemies are identified according to race, religion, geographic region, and especially income class, and targeted for demonization in order to rake in more votes from the preferred elements of a winning political coalition. It’s ugly, and it’s going to get worse – just take a look at any of the countries further along the “road to Greece” than America is.
But conservative ideas are universal. We sail upon the rising tide that lifts all boats. We revere a Constitution that secures the unalienable rights of all, and we are proud to understand this gift from our Founders even better than some of our forefathers did. This is not a message that should be cynically altered in desperate political bids to grab a few votes from various minority groups. It can be explained in many different ways, without corrupting its essence.
At the same time, we must understand that we live in a visual culture, and there’s no question in the minds of anyone who studied the 2012 election returns, or read the exit polls, that some voters think in very superficial terms. They also must be effectively communicated with. Perception is important.
And you can never underestimate the effects of a good post-election stampede upon the political class, both Republican and Democrat. Thus, the air is filled today with Republicans muttering that some sort of amnesty program for illegal immigrants is the ticket to winning more of the Hispanic vote. That’s not an issue Hispanic voters actually mentioned in the exit polls, but it’s nice, level intellectual ground for the political class to stampede across, so off we go.
“Comprehensive immigration reform” doesn’t have to mean “amnesty.” Everyone should by now understand that every word of Washington-speak comes loaded with high-capacity magazines of differing interpretation, and some of the most spirited political battles are fought over the true meaning of ambiguous terms.
“Immigration reform” is a combination of three related issues: legal immigration, illegal immigration, and the disposition of illegal immigrants who already live in the United States. Legal immigration is far too complex and difficult – it’s a process that can take years to complete. Illegal immigration is far too easy. Is it really so difficult to find ways to make illegal immigration harder, and legal immigration easier, and set the existing population of illegal immigrants properly set upon the path of legal citizenship, without special favors or the wholesale excuse of serious crimes? In other words, let us reform access to citizenship without devaluing it, and thus address a legitimate situation in a reasonable way, rather than trying to compete in a pandering contest Republicans can never win. The devaluation of citizenship in many different ways – including the violation of immigration laws, election laws, and the fraud-riddled infrastructure of Food Stamp Nation – is a serious problem, and Hispanic voters will join every other group in responding positively to the restoration of pride and value in citizenship. Becoming an American citizen, whether by birth or lawful immigration, should be seen by all as a combination of responsibilities and benefits – a tough but joyous job that is very much worth doing.
That would go a long way toward addressing the sense among many Hispanic voters that even though they might generally agree with the need to secure America’s borders, they find the way Republicans discuss the issue to be occasionally clumsy, unappealing, or offensive. The Hispanic population also features much agreement with conservatives on social issues and religious faith. And they’re involved in the same “free stuff versus freedom” debate as every other ethnic group, although each group may discuss the subject in somewhat different ways. It’s one thing to fare badly among voters from an implacably hostile group, but far more depressing to do increasingly worse – from 2004 to 2008 to 2012 – among a group that agrees with you about so much. Do some Hispanic voters display an unhealthy interest in the welfare state? Well, so do some voters from every other background, in every region of the United States. They’re all wrong, and they all need to understand why. It’s a vital, formidable, complex task, not an inscrutable mystery. It is both poor strategy and ethically unacceptable to the true conservative to write any group off. That’s not how we roll. That’s not how America rolls.
So what about the old white male stuff? Cardenas is right about the way the Republican party is perceived. Changing that perception does not necessarily require running a young non-white non-male in 2016, but we’ve got plenty of great potential candidates who happily meet two or three of those criteria, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez. Republicans can do a lot worse than starting with an excellent candidate who also happens to sweep the old white male stuff off the table. And swept away it will be, with a speed that will give you whiplash. I don’t believe Vice President Joe Biden’s assurances that he’ll run for the White House in 2016, but if he does, he’ll be one of the oldest whitest malest guys who ever applied for the job, and you won’t believe how quickly the media will assure us that none of that matters, all the way through his first debate with Susana Martinez.
Old white maleness is a perception. Perceptions can be changed in many ways, including policy and rhetoric. Republicans need to develop the skills to use all of them.