This is also the point suggested by the recent argument, marshaled by Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics and amplified by others, that it makes as much sense to see the G.O.P.’s 2012 defeat as a reflection of the party’s failure to woo Perot-ish, downscale, disaffected white voters as it does to just pin Romney’s defeat on demographic changes and anti-anti-immigration backlash. Liberals have portrayed this thesis as an argument that the Republicans should just double down on their existing, largely white base, but that’s not the sensible implication of what Trende is saying. Rather, it’s that many of his “missing white voters” are the lowest-hanging fruit for a party trying to rebuild itself, and that the kind of populist arguments that resonate with that constituency might actually offer the Republicans a better chance with minority voters in the longer run as well.
Now of course there are ways to mix and match these points. One could invoke the Trende thesis, as some talk radio figures have done, to justify basically standing pat ideologically on both immigration reform and economic policy writ large. It’s not a very plausible argument, but it’s one that some conservatives will obviously find appealing. Alternatively, and somewhat more plausibly, one could take the approach of many Bush administration veterans and argue for immigration reform as a necessary signal to Hispanics that requires follow-up on other fronts, and that makes sense as part of a larger, multi-issue shift intended to improve the G.O.P.’s standing with the pan-ethnic working class.
But much of the energy in the immigration fight comes from factions within the Republican tent that regard the Rubio-Schumer bill as a brilliant-and-easy way to avoid any kind of broader rethinking on economics, and that are pressing immigration reform on their co-partisans as the only conceivable alternative to swift political extinction. This is the argument Lowry and Kristol are mostly pushing back against: No, they’re saying, there are other paths the party could take. And they’re right.