The GOP Reaches the Third Stage of Grief

On immigration and Electoral College gerrymandering, the right is trying to bargain with reality.


Conservatives have reached the third in the five stages of grief. The first stage, denial, came Election Night (see Karl Rove on Fox News). The second stage, anger, can be seen in the reaction to most things President Obama does: How dare he nominate Chuck Hagel? How dare he give a liberal inaugural address? How dare he, in short, act like he won?

The third stage of grief is bargaining, and the ways it's exhibiting itself illuminate the looming schism in the GOP.

First, there are the pragmatists. They're lining up behind the immigration reform framework unveiled last week by a bipartisan group of senators, including Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Critics pan the proposal as "amnesty," a term so radioactive on the right that its mere mention had for years cowed GOP pols. See, for example, McCain's 2010 run for re-election, which saw him morph from a Ted Kennedy-collaborating maverick into an immigration hard-liner. Or recall last year's Republican primaries, when Mitt Romney used the immigration issue to get to the right of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who had committed the sin of being soft on the children of illegal immigrants.

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

What a difference a year makes. When asked by reporters this week why there is now hope for a deal, McCain, back in deal maker mode, replied: "Elections, elections." Obama won 71 percent of Hispanic voters last November and if the GOP doesn't figure out how to stem that tide, they're going to face a long, lonely exile from the White House. Hispanics typically rate other issues as more important than immigration, but it becomes a gateway issue Republicans can't get past as long as they toss around concepts like "anchor babies" and electrified fences and generally give the impression that they see Latinos as a ravening menace.

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So the pragmatists' bargain is: Amnesty, neutralizing the issue so Republicans can have a shot at wooing Hispanics.

But that's a problem for some conservatives, especially in the context of 2012. They spent four years decrying Obama as un-American and an accidental president who owed his election to the novelty of voting for a black man. But instead of taking their country back as they had expected to do, they were confronted with the reality that Obama's new Democratic coalition—minorities, women, young people, and well-educated whites—isn't a fluke, it's the future. Demographic trends dictate that those groups' political muscle is only going to grow in coming years.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

For aging, Tea Party whites, then, illegal immigration is another symptom of a country that is changing in frightening ways. Previous waves of immigrants, Rush Limbaugh said this week, came because they "wanted to become citizens of the greatest country on Earth." But current immigrants "come here because they believe that government is the source of prosperity." They are, he has said, an "underclass" looking for government handouts.

This branch of conservatism, the revanchists, has a rather more sinister bargain that they are pushing. Faced with a bad political map that only figures to get worse, they want to rig the game. Politicians in five swing states which Obama won but have GOP governors—Virginia, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—have floated proposals to change the way they distribute electoral votes. Instead of the current winner-take-all method, states would allot electoral votes according to who won each congressional district. This sounds fine until you consider how congressional districts are drawn up: It would gerrymander the Electoral College. So in Virginia, for example, while Obama won 51-47 percent, Romney would have walked away with nine of the state's 13 electors. "It's something that a lot of states that have been consistently blue that are fully controlled red ought to be looking at," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.