Jeb Bush has long been one of the GOP's most moderate voices on immigration reform, and now the former Florida governor is out with a new book that offers a plan for "resolving immigration issues for the long term" and making gains among Hispanic voters. Alas, it is not a persuasive plan.
Some were surprised, others outraged after reports yesterday that Bush, in Immigration Wars, opposes a path to citizenship for undocumented workers. As others have since pointed out, though, the book was written before last year's election, which delivered a stern lesson to Republicans on the need to court Latinos. Plus, Bush's stance is less of a flip flop than a "lurch," and he's already walking it back in the mainstream media.
Still, some conservatives might use this moment to argue against a path to citizenship, so it's worth noting that such opposition could derail both immigration reform and the GOP's effort to appeal to Latino voters. Democrats aren't likely to cave on such a central point—not now, while they're ascendant on the issue—and Bush's stance might embolden conservatives who oppose "amnesty," creating an impasse. But if immigration reform failed, only one party would suffer the political costs: A Latino Decisions poll found that 64 percent of Latinos would blame Republicans, compared to just 10 percent who would blame Democrats.
Even if immigration reform were enacted without a path to citizenship—an unlikely scenario, admittedly—such legislation couldn't be confused with "resolving" the issue for the "long term," at least from a political perspective. After all, Democratic presidential candidates could still advocate for a path to citizenship, using it as a powerful wedge issue—perhaps even more powerful than it is today. Legal status for undocumented workers, over the long run, might prove unpersuasive to Hispanic communities demanding full recognition and legitimacy under the law, much as civil-union laws have failed to satisfy advocates of same-sex marriage. It's not just about being legal; it's also about dignity.
Of course, even if Republicans did compromise on immigration reform, it probably wouldn't be enough to win over Hispanics. There was nothing unusual about President Obama's performance among Latinos—Clinton did even better in 1996 than Obama did in 2008 and 2012. Hispanics lean Democratic for a reason: They're far more economically liberal than most Americans. A staggering 75 percent of Hispanic voters prefer a bigger government that provides more services to a smaller government that provides fewer services, according to Pew Research. In comparison, just 41 percent of all voters support a bigger government. So long as the size and role of government dominates the current debate between the two parties, it's hard to see how Republicans make significant gains among Latino voters.
In response, Bush's book offers this advice for Republicans: "Get religion." He adds, "What is most striking about Hispanic religious beliefs is their attachment to 'renewalist' faiths—Pentecostal, evangelical, and charismatic," he adds. But Hispanics aren't as socially conservative as this assumes. Hispanics, by a 59-30 margin, think society should accept homosexuality, which is slightly higher than the general population's 58-33. Even 38 percent of Hispanic evangelicals think homosexuality should be accepted, compared to just 29 percent of white evangelicals. Hispanics are quite conservative on abortion—43 percent believe it should be legal, compared to 54 percent of the overall population—but second and third-generation Hispanics are just as supportive of abortion as the country as a whole. Instead, it's first-generation Hispanics, the ones least likely to vote and most supportive of Democrats on economic issues, who drive opposition to abortion by a 33-58 margin. Second- and third-generation Hispanics are more accepting of homosexuality—68-25—than the general population.
Bush is right that Hispanics are more culturally conservative than economically conservative, so focusing on religious issues would probably improve the GOP's standing among them. It is probably not a coincidence that George W. Bush's record 40 percent share of Latino voters came during a year when "moral values" was deemed the most important issue by voters. But in order to get Latinos to vote more on cultural than economic issues, Republicans would presumably need to focus more on lightning-rod cultural issues, much as they did in 2004. Although rebuilding the Bush coalition is superficially appealing, it's a losing strategy—demographic and generational change has made sure of that. Even if Republicans replicate Bush's performances among Latino voters, they'll still lose. To win, the GOP probably needs to combine improvements among Latino voters with gains in well-educated metropolitan areas, like northern Virginia or the Denver and Philadelphia suburbs. But cultural issues have helped turn these formerly competitive regions into Democratic strongholds, suggesting a trade-off between the GOP's efforts to rebuild their support among Hispanics and socially moderate suburbanites. Given that well-educated suburbanites voters play a larger role than Hispanics in every tipping-point state, it's foolish to argue that Republicans should emphasize cultural issues.1
As I've argued before, the GOP needs to do a lot more than just appeal to Latinos. But if the party is serious about winning them over, then Immigration Wars is not the right strategy. The fact that it was written by Jeb Bush—a respected establishment figure and potential 2016 candidate with Latino credentials and centrist appeal—makes it that much worse, threatening to convince other reform-minded Republicans that this ineffectual "plan" to reform immigration and win Latinos is somehow the best the party can do.
This doesn't necessarily mean that Republicans need to reverse their policies on cultural issues, just that they probably shouldn't stake national elections on these issues so long as states like Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Colorado control the outcome