It’s no exaggeration to say that the next six months will determine the viability of the Republican Party. The demographics of this country are changing. This will be the last presidential election cycle in which the GOP, in its current form, has even a shot at winning the White House. And so the large question Republicans must ask themselves is: Are we as a party willing to champion the new America that is inexorably rising around us, or are we the receding roar of an old America that is never coming back?
Within that large question the GOP will have to face several other questions.
The first is: How is 21st-century America going to view outsiders? For Republicans in the Donald Trump camp, the metaphor is very clear: A wall. Outsiders are a threat and a wall will keep them out.
Republicans in the Jeb Bush camp have a very different metaphor. As Bush and his co-author Clint Bolick wrote in their book, “Immigration Wars,” “When immigration policy is working right it is like a hydroelectric dam: a sturdy wall whose valves allow torrents of water to pour through, creating massive amounts of dynamic energy.” Under this metaphor the outside world is not a threat; it’s a source of creativity, dynamism and perpetual renewal.
The second question Republicans have to ask is: Can the party see reality? The great Victorian critic John Ruskin once wrote: “The more I think of it I find this conclusion more impressed upon me – that the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see.”
Some Republican leaders simply lack the ability or willingness to acknowledge reality. Deporting 11 million people is not reality. Building a physical wall across the southern border is not reality. I’m sorry, Ted Cruz, but going back to the gold standard is not reality.
The third GOP question is: How does the party view leadership? For a rising number of Republicans – congregating around Trump and Ben Carson – leadership is about ignorance and inexperience. Actually having prepared for the job is a disqualifying factor. Knowing the substance of government is a negative.
On the other side, people like John Kasich and Bush are becoming more aggressive in their defense of experience, knowledge and craftsmanship. They’ve become more aggressive in making the case that governance is hard and you’ve got to know how things fit together.
In the realm of immigration, the first conclusion any pragmatist draws is that it’s ridiculous to say we just need to start enforcing the laws. The problem, as Bush has argued, is that the laws are dysfunctional. The whole system is wildly broken and it would cause massive dislocation if the rules were actually enforced. The system needs to be reformed.
The other conclusion any pragmatist draws is that for political and practical reasons, the whole system has to be reformed comprehensively and at once. You can’t do anything effective unless all the pieces fit together. As Bush and Bolick argued in their book, “A goal of sealing the border is hopeless without creating an immigration pipeline that provides a viable alternative to illegal immigration.”
As anybody with legislative experience knows, nothing can be passed unless Republican interests are rallied along with Democratic interests, unless Silicon Valley’s political influence is joined by the farm state’s political influence. Doing that requires experience and knowledge.
Republican craftsmen understand this reality. Political naïfs do not.
The fourth question is: How does the Republican Party treat the distrust that is so pervasive in our society?
For some in the Cruz, Trump and Bobby Jindal camps, this distrust is to be exploited. This produces a kind of nihilism. Tear down. Oppose. Scorn. Shut down government but do not have an actual plan to achieve your goals once it’s shut down. Depose a House speaker but have no viable path forward once he is gone.
The other approach is to see distrust as a problem that can be reduced with effective conservative governance. Under Ronald Reagan, faith in government actually rose, because people saw things like tax reform getting done. Republicans in this camp view cynicism as a poison to be drained, not a kerosene to be lit.
On all these levels, the Republican Party faces a crossroads moment. Immigration is the key issue around which Republicans will determine the course of their party. It’ll be fascinating to see which way they go.
One more point. I’m sorry, Marco Rubio, when your party faces a choice this stark, with consequences this monumental, you’re probably not going to be able to get away with being a little on both sides.