Earlier this week, Speaker John Boehner apparently suggested to House Republicans that he wouldn’t move an immigration bill without the support of half of House Republicans—the so-called Hastert Rule. If so, immigration reform is in trouble and so is the Republican rebrand.
It’s hard to say whether Boehner is bluffing. He probably wouldn’t formalize the “Hastert Rule,” as some conservatives have demanded, since Boehner has needed to abandon the rule to advance must-pass legislation, like the fiscal cliff deal or Sandy relief. Most House Republicans probably supported ditching the Hastert rule in those circumstances, since they couldn’t accept a massive public backlash. So far, it’s unclear whether a majority of Republicans believe the same reasoning applies to immigration reform. Boehner’s statement suggests they do not—though public outcry could change their minds.
If the Hastert Rule is applied to immigration reform, it’s going to be tough for immigration reform to pass the House. The "gang of eight" bill is struggling to attract Republican support in the Senate, which doesn’t augur well for getting half of the more conservative House: 89 percent of Senate Republicans voted for the fiscal cliff deal, compared to 36 percent of House Republicans.
If the House GOP wants to block immigration reform, rather than voice their disapproval, then the GOP rebrand is in trouble. For starters, there’s the well-known problem with Hispanics: immigration reform is a necessary but insufficient condition for the GOP to make gains among Hispanics. For what it’s worth, the GOP’s Hispanic problem is overblown—they’re only 9 or 10 percent of the electorate, and the GOP probably can’t do well enough among Hispanics to take back states like Colorado or Nevada without additional gains among white voters. But the GOP will probably need to do better among Hispanics over the long term, and more Hispanic support would certainly help in 2016—especially in Florida, where the GOP is in more trouble than Obama’s narrow victory suggests.
But the failure of immigration reform bodes poorly for the GOP’s “rebrand,” even beyond the direct consequences with Hispanic voters. It suggests that Republicans are more interested in preventing the passage of legislation than improving the party's chances in national elections. That's understandable in many circumstances: Obviously Republicans cannot and should not stop fighting for their beliefs. But they should cut their losses and retreat to more defensible ground if resistance is futile and their core beliefs aren’t in jeopardy. A pathway to citizenship, for instance, is all but inevitable. Background checks for gun purchases are also likely to come to fruition, at least if Democrats stay committed to a winning fight. For good measure, both issues are incidental to the GOP’s core governing philosophy. So why are these fights worth having?
In other words, obstruction is hurting the GOP rebrand. Over the last few months, the GOP’s stubborn resistance to a compromise on background checks has added a new, losing wedge issue to the 2016 election. Now, pressure to apply the Hastert Rule to immigration reform threatens an opportunity to get rid of another losing issue. As a result, the burden on the next Republican presidential candidate is getting greater.
It won't be easy for a GOP presidential candidate to moderate the party. The most commonly cited precedent is Bill Clinton, but the DLC-Clinton rebrand wasn’t especially challenging, at least in retrospect. It’s not like the Democratic base was enamored with unreformed welfare, middle class tax increases, or making abortion less “rare.” In fact, the Democratic rank-and-file of 1992 was somewhat conservative, with a large white, working class contingent in the South and Midwest. That allowed Bill Clinton to win the Democratic nomination without splitting his party, even though he battled serious questions about his character. In comparison, consider the fate of Jon Huntsman, who adhered to every conservative policy position but didn’t attract much support, in part because he made the mistake of believing in the science of global warming and evolution. Or even Mitt Romney, who barely squeaked by a wildly underfunded Rick Santorum.
Maybe Republicans could nominate a candidate a "New Republican" in 2016: a candidate who softens their stance on women's issues (supporting federal funding for Planned Parenthood), a pathway to citizenship, science (believing in evolution or global warming), background checks on guns, middle class economics, or gay marriage. But it would be much easier if Republicans would let Democrats help them out. It would also be easier if the Supreme Court would strike down state bans on same-sex marriage. There's not much hope of that, either.