Our Views: Hard choices on GOP policy

On different levels, the loss — for many Republicans, the unexpected loss — of the 2012 presidential election provokes analysis that is needed but also conclusions that may be difficult to make into party policy anytime soon.

One big example is the voting of Hispanic immigrants. Exit polls suggested that Hispanic voters supported President Barack Obama by 44 percentage points, up eight points from 2008’s election.

A report on the prospect of rising numbers of voters who have Latin American roots provides a basis for discussion: “Hispanics are an ever-important part of the electorate that can’t be ignored. The scope of the challenge is broad, but there is opportunity ahead for conservatives to engage,” Jennifer S. Korn of the Hispanic Leadership Network, a Republican-funded group designed to do outreach, wrote in a memo quoted in The Washington Post.

In 2004, George W. Bush tied in the Hispanic vote in Texas and lost in Arizona by 13 percentage points. Mitt Romney lost the Hispanic vote by more than 40 points in both states, worth 49 electoral votes.

Yet Romney’s overall win in both states this year suggests another point: Demographic changes work slowly, in political terms, as there is always another election right around the corner. Democrats who see an inevitable “blue Dixie” in Texas are likely to be disappointed in the near term.

At the same time, we note a name — George W. Bush — that was almost absent from political discourse, except in Democrats’ attack ads.

Bush, a Spanish speaker, and others in the GOP made outreach to Hispanic voters a key. The party’s right made immigrant-bashing a festival in the primaries this election cycle. Romney pilloried one of his primary opponents, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, for sensible decisions that helped children of illegal immigrants get an education.

So choices matter, not purely outreach.

Romney’s primary rhetoric ignored the impressions upon voters made by policy decisions — such as whether students of Hispanic origin are welcome in American classrooms. Yet a significant part of the party’s base demands their exclusion on the grounds that their parents are illegal immigrants.

That view is represented in the Senate by those who characterize immigration reform as “amnesty” for illegals, as does U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La.

“I believe we need to lead by pushing for real immigration reform: better securing our borders, a better naturalization process for immigrants who are trying to become citizens the right way, and enabling states and cities with the ability to enforce the immigration laws already on the books,” Vitter said in his contribution to this post-election debate.

Another view was offered by LSU professor Bob Mann, who formerly worked for leading Louisiana Democrats. Mann, author of an invaluable history of the U.S. Senate and the civil rights movement, noted that Democrats’ courtship of the black vote in the 1950s and 1960s was not just a matter of legislation.

“Even the Republicans’ high-profile, vital role in passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act earned them little lasting affection from blacks after the 1964 GOP nominee, Barry Goldwater, voted against the bill and his party opposed Johnson’s Great Society,” Mann noted in a column for Reuters.

He chronicled a “long, contentious courtship of black voters (that) suggests a successful Republican effort to win over Hispanics might take many years, perhaps a decade or more. A quick-fix approach may yield little.”

Who is right?

Parties are often reluctant to change deeply held opinions, and in general that is a good thing. But today’s discussion is about an urgent political dilemma: Will the Republican Party embrace change or double-down on the policies that resulted in an electoral college rout in key states with large Hispanic populations?

“Selling out our principles wholesale for potential political expediency is not the answer,” Vitter said.

That choice might not matter in the next election, but as the Hispanic share of the electorate rises, that and other policy stands must be evaluated anew by the GOP.