The Rebranding Mirage

Anyone who reads a lot of political commentary is aware there’s a broad division in opinion about what’s going on in the Republican Party these days. One camp holds that all the radicalism and restlessness associated with the Tea Party Movement (and before that, the Christian Right) is ultimately insignificant because the GOP is an elite-driven, business-dominated enterprise that’s willing to let conservative activists and their rank-and-file foot soldiers have the keys for a joy-ride now and then, but is ultimately in charge and is ultimately pragmatic and “centrist” in its outlook. The other camp holds that the mirage isn’t radical grassroots power but elite control and “pragmatism.”

I’m firmly in the second camp. So is Salon‘s Brian Beutler, who has a long essay today disputing the President’s relatively benign view of the direction of the GOP, as expressed in that gazillion-word interview-based profile by David Remnick in the latest New Yorker.

The most interesting thing in Beutler’s argument is his discussion of how immediately after the 2012 elections GOP elites decided on comprehensive immigration reform as their “rebranding” vehicle:

Republican leaders settled on immigration reform as their one big overture precisely because they thought it would be the easiest gesture to make to the voters who rejected them without antagonizing the ones who didn’t. The GOP donor class hates taxing wealthy people to subsidize takers, but supports immigration reform uniquely among social issues for opportunistic reasons; and of all the Republican Party’s potential growth constituencies, working immigrants are the most sympathetic to conservative voters who oppose abortion and marriage equality out of religious principle.

So immigration reform is the greatest common factor — and it has been on a breathing machine for half a year and counting.

This should be kept carefully in mind when more difficult issue-position maneuvers–i.e., over entitlements, poverty programs, abortion, foreign policy, same-sex marriage, taxes–are put out there as potential image-changers for the GOP. If GOP elites, with the full backing of the business community and many conservative religious leaders in tow, can’t succeed in convincing “the base” and its ideological shock troops to pursue the ripe, low-hanging fruit of a bigger share of the Latino vote with immigration policies accepted by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, why does anyone imagine the tougher cases are going to go well? Beats me, beyond an intensely held belief in the power of elites and their determination to follow the median voter theory in a “move to the center” whenever an election is lost.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.