Is Marco Rubio Really About to Ruin the Republican Party?

Some high-profile conservatives, including Ann Coulter and the editors of National Review, think Senator Marco Rubio is making a big mistake in his push for immigration reform.

Embedded in many of these critiques — sometimes subtly, sometimes not — is the worry that a naive Rubio is inadvertently handing Democrats a permanent political majority. Not only would millions of currently illegal immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American nations eventually become citizens and reliably vote Democratic, but this de facto amnesty would lure millions more into crossing the southern border.

Bad for Republicans? Sure. But also bad news, so goes the theory, for anyone in favor of pro-market economic policies since Latinos in general seem to favor bigger government and higher taxes. So we’re talking not just a permanent Democratic majority but a permanent Big Government majority.

But here’s the other side of that trade:

1. While immigration reform alone won’t make most Hispanics switch from D to R, it is the gateway policy needed before conservatives can begin to make their case to that community. And even though future Republican presidential candidates could conceivably win doing as poorly among Hispanics as Mitt Romney did — at least for another election, maybe two — such a weak showing leaves little margin for error and makes a large, Reaganesque GOP win improbable.

2. Immigration reform would nudge conservatives and Republicans to move beyond an economic agenda — both in terms of policy and messaging — that’s been focused almost exclusively on a) debt reduction, and b) directly meeting the needs of business and entrepreneurs. Keep all that stuff, of course, but what about education and health care reform and the tax code’s anti-parent bias? A populist, middle-class agenda won’t just help win the votes of Hispanics, but also the votes of millions of middle-income and working-class Americans of whatever race and ethnicity who think the GOP and conservative policies have nothing to offer them.

3. Even if it will be initially hard to move the Hispanic vote rightward, immigration reform sends a signal to other groups — Asians, women, younger voters — that the GOP is an open, inclusive, and compassionate party. Recall that exit polls showed 53% of 2012 voters thought Obama was “more in touch” with people like themselves — and of that group 81% voted for Obama. As Bloomberg noted:

For a little perspective, consider the votes of another minority – Asians. Romney won among all voters making more than $100,000 a year by a margin of 54-44. Asian-Americans happen to be the highest-earning group in the U.S., out-earning whites, and they generally place enormous emphasis on family. A perfect fit for Republicans, no?

No. Asians voted for Obama by 73-26; they were more Democratic than Hispanics. It’s possible that Hispanics and Asians are more communitarian than individualistic, leading them to identify more with Democrats than Republicans. But most immigrants, like most other Americans, possess both strains in their political DNA. (People rarely pull up roots and move to a new land without a strong sense of individualism.)

Rubio isn’t selling a political solution. He’s offering only an opportunity.