Newt and immigration: Why it's the third rail for Republicans

by John MacBeath Watkins

Newt Gingrich is getting hammered by his opponents for suggesting that mass deportations are not "humane."

Mitt Romney:
“I just think we make a mistake as a Republican Party to try to describe which people who’ve come here illegally should be given amnesty to be able to jump ahead of the line of the people who have been waiting in line.”
Linking Gingrich's comments to "amnesty," is a pretty hard-edged political implement, because it's a fighting word for social conservatives on the immigration issue.

Michele Bachmann laid the ultimate Republican insult at his feet, calling his stance "the most liberal" of the Republican candidates. The "L" word is about as close as she ever comes to profanity.

I'm not sure how it escaped Gingrich's notice that Republican primary voters are in no way interested in treating immigrants in a "humane" manner.

As I pointed out in this post, the political polarization in this country has a lot to do with immigration. It's at times when we have a lot of immigrants, like the late 19th century, that we have a lot of political polarization. It's times when immigration falls, such as the 1920s, that polarization falls.

Perhaps the most perceptive comments I've heard along these lines is that of Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, who described the modern Democratic coalition as diverse America and the whites who are comfortable with diverse America.

As we discussed in this post, fear of non-white America is what binds together the diverse elements of the Republican coalition. It is therefore a coalition in which one can appeal to various groups by offering to lower taxes for business conservatives, ban abortion of religious conservatives, end the Fed for libertarians, and none of these promises will resonate outside the particular group you are pandering to. But the one thing they all agree on is their ethnic panic, as discussed in this post.

As a result, pandering to groups that make up the Republican coalition can help you with them, but alienating them on the issue of immigration alienates them all.

Bachmann may think that if she can push Gingrich off the pollster's mountain, she can ascend and be queen of it again. But I doubt that Republican voters are ready to start going through the roster of non-Romney candidates again, searching for a great white hope. At this point, it's Gingrich, Romney, or no one, and you can't beat someone with no one, so Republicans really must choose between the two.

That's what Gingrich has going for him, and the one chance he has that Republican ethnic panic won't doom his hopes for the nomination.

And why do they keep seeking a non-Romney? For one, they don't trust him, and who would? He's shown he will say whatever he must to get the office he wants, morphing into a moderate liberal to get elected governor of Massachusetts, then morphing into a conservative when he decided he wanted the presidency. The man is a pandering jukebox, ready to sing whatever song you want. If conservatives don't trust his depth of conviction, it only shows they are paying attention.

And, of course, Mormons are The Other as well.

 A quarter of voters will not vote for a Mormon. That's fewer than will vote for a black, a Jew, a woman or a Hispanic. That doesn't mean Gingrich is a lock, because 30 percent will not vote for someone who has been married three times.

But then, in 1959, the year before John Kennedy was elected president, 25% of Gallup's respondents said they wouldn't vote for a Catholic for president. It didn't matter, because a little more than 50% did. Kennedy managed to convince people that he wasn't The Other, and he had the good fortune to be telegenic at a time when television started to influence elections.

Sometimes, it matters more who a candidate is than what obvious characteristics can be polled for. But it always matters where they stand, and Gingrich has chosen some slippery footing.