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July 02, 2013 12:10 PM White Sale

By Ed Kilgore

I’ve been writing about this for the last week in the context of Sean Trende’s analysis of ethnic and racial voting data. But MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin has an excellent summary of the gradual but steady conversion of conservative gabbers from the belief that securing a higher share of the Latino vote is an ontological necessity for the GOP to the very, very different conviction that the GOP’s salvation lies in an enhanced appeal to the same white voters that already compose nearly all of its “base.”

After November’s stunning loss, an array of influential Republicans argued that immigration reform was the party’s best chance to claim Latino voters before they become permanent Democrats. But in a mere eight months, a counter-narrative has taken hold in conservative circles, nurtured by a shrewd group of anti-immigration lobbyists and Tea Party enthusiasts. The new argument sees immigration reform at best as a divisive distraction from the GOP’s real problem of countering “white flight” from the polls. At worst, they view it as an electoral apocalypse, a seventh seal behind which lies an unbroken line of future Democratic presidents.

Sarlin sees this “counter-narrative” largely as a backlash against “Republican establishment” voices telling conservatives something they really, really didn’t want to hear (it’s no accident that Rush Limbaugh was among the first and most consistent in rejecting the Latino Imperative proposition). But he notes that some influential figures, particularly on Fox News, have switched from one theory to another as conservative opposition to immigration reform has intensified:

[T]he anti-immigration argument appears to be gaining converts fast. On election night, Fox News anchor Brit Hume called the “demographic” threat posed by Latino voters “absolutely real” and suggested Mitt Romney’s “hardline position on immigration” may be to blame for election losses. On Monday, Hume declared that argument “baloney.” The Hispanic vote, he said, “is not nearly as important, still, as the white vote.”
Sean Hannity, a reliable bellwether on the right, has been on a similar journey since the fall. He announced the day after President Obama’s re-election that he had “evolved” on immigration reform and now supported a “path to citizenship” in order to improve relations with Hispanic voters. Hannity has now flipped hard against the Senate’s bill. “Not only do I doubt the current legislation will solve the immigration problem,” he wrote in a June column, “but it also won’t help the GOP in future elections.”
Hannity and Hume didn’t arrive at their latest destination by accident. They’re just the latest figures on the right to embrace the compelling new message that’s whipping Republicans against immigration reform while still promising a better tomorrow for the GOP’s presidential candidates.

Sarlin notes the particular role played by the highly-reputed number-cruncher Sean Trende and the influential conservative journalist Byron York (who unlike Trende has been crusading against the Gang of Eight immigration bill) in making this inherently attractive-to-conservatives argument (I’ve called it a bottomless crack pipe for the Right) respectable. Their work is particularly popular, unfortunately, among those who deliberately ignore what Trende and York say about the kind of white voters who “went missing” in 2012 and the unconventional things Republicans need to do to appeal to them:

York and Trende have some nuanced ideas about how the GOP can accomplish what Romney failed to do, many of which involve tacking left on the economy. But to the talk radio right, the main takeaway is that there are several million angry white votes ripe for the taking if the party can swing even more to the right.
White voters stayed home, Limbaugh said in May, because “they didn’t think the Republican Party was conservative enough….”
“Their idea seems to be gaining currency,” Frank Sharry, executive director of immigration advocacy group America’s Voice, told MSNBC. “Right after the election most of the conservative commentariat said they had to do something to get right with Latino voters. Now there seems to be this bizarre conversation that could only happen in the conservative bubble about how Romney didn’t win because he didn’t mobilize enough white voters.”
Underlying these claims is a belief that Romney lost because he was a blue-blooded moderate who failed to connect to conservative white voters on a visceral level. Nominate an American bad-ass in 2016 and those missing whites will reappear in a hurry.

Bingo. It’s more or less the same rationalization conservatives offered for losing in 2008, as well: a nominee too moderate for the “conservative majority” who was laboring under the false premise that his past support for comprehensive immigration reform would win him Latino support.

The bottom line here is that selling conservatives on a particularly self-serving version of the “missing white voter” theory is the easiest sale imaginable, and they are accordingly buying it like hot cakes. That’s bad news for those who favor immigration reform, and even worse news for those who dream of a political environment in which racial and ethnic conflict is not constantly lurking in the background.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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