Greg Sargent has an interesting post today on Steve King’s bewilderment about the support he sees among Republicans for comprehensive immigration reform, based on “a spell” he perceives as having been cast on GOPers about the role of that issue in the 2012 presidential election. Greg reminds us that during the 2012 nomination contest, Mitt Romney rolled to victory boasting of his support for “self-deportation,” and wonders if perhaps the tide may soon turn inside the GOP, whether or not it happens in time to produce successful reform legislation this year:

[A]s long as some Republicans are seriously engaged on the need to do something about the 11 million, reform is not completely dead. As King suggests, for those Republicans who are seriously engaging, this represents a major change. I remain pessimistic about reform’s chances. But King is right to take note of the shifts we’re seeing, and he’s also right — given the universe he inhabits — to be afraid of them.

I agree with Greg’s conclusion, but would observe that the history of Republican sentiment on immigration reform is very tangled. It’s not a story of monolithic nativism being slowly supplanted by realism. Check out this video of two Republican presidents discussing the issue during the 1980s primaries:

YouTube video

Sounds a lot more reasonable than anything we heard during the 2012 GOP primaries, doesn’t it? Ronald Reagan went on to sign an “amnesty” bill as president, and Poppy’s son promoted another, unsuccessfully, in 2006-2007, working alongside his successor as Republican presidential nominee, John McCain. So it’s entirely possible for good, orthodox Republicans to disagree with Steve King.

But the question is whether enlightenment–or perhaps we should say “re-enlightenment”–of Republicans on this issue is compatible with the intense rightward drift of the party since 2008?

There are actually grounds for optimism not because “moderation” is making a comeback in the GOP, or even because business elites favor it (though that does matter), but because more than a few conservatives hungering and thirsting for power consider their past positions on immigration far more negotiable than “core” commitments like banning abortion or radically reducing the size and reach of domestic government. Truth is, many Republican elected officials would like to see the whole issue just go away, and that’s impossible without legislation. Ultimately, if they are going to have to “change” to win elections (and obviously many on the Right reject that premise), this is for many a change they can live with. That should continue to be the case going forward.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.