Establishment GOP ignores Divider-in-Chief's immigration lesson

Just two short years ago Barack Obama referred to Republicans as “the enemy” on immigration reform. Now, establishment Republicans seem to think if they simply abandon all principle on immigration policy they will be beloved by Hispanic voters, miraculously closing the massive voting gap.

After every lost election, a segment of Republicans rush to embrace the wisdom of Democrats and the mainstream media in assessing how the party can win future elections. Strange to turn to one’s opponents, who have zero interest in one’s future success and even less understanding of one’s core voting base, for advice on electoral success. Even if the advice were genuine and the wisdom real, they ignore the reality of Barack Obama–the masterful “Divider in Chief.” Republicans can embrace anything they like regarding immigration policy. They can abandon all vestige of conscience. Obama will still do everything he can to vilify the Republican Party, ensuring it remains, to Latino voters, “The Enemy.”

Thoughtful conservatives realize that the wrong approach after elections is a knee-jerk one: “We lost, and we lost among particular demographic groups, so let’s change our position on all issues we think are important to those groups so that our positions mirror those of the winner.” That’s absurd. The failure in this past election with Hispanic voters was not over positions on immigration. It came from the way these positions were conveyed, or not conveyed, combined with the lack of a targeted, grassroots approach to reach various demographic groups: including women, young people, African Americans and Hispanics, with a compelling conservative message.

The decision was made during this campaign to avoid some tough issues–immigration being one of them–allowing the Democrats to fill the vacuum with distortions, division and fear-mongering. Obama’s portrayal of Republicans, including the presidential candidate, as an “enemy” opposed to all immigration (not just illegal immigration) was allowed to stand.

There is plenty of anecdotal, as well as exit-poll data revealing that while the vilifying had an impact, the real impediment to Republicans connecting with Hispanic voters was not the Republican position on illegal immigration, but rather the concern that Republicans want to somehow gut entitlement programs. That is not remedied by offering amnesty. The Republican approach should be a targeted effort to convey a “freedom message” to immigrants who came here specifically to build a better future through freedom and prosperity. That’s the principle that attracts immigrants to America in the first place, and the one that resonates with all Americans.

But the Republican Party has done a lousy job lately conveying that message: to Hispanics, women, and others. The Republican establishment, urged on by the mainstream media, is now assuming the wrong lessons and advocating running away from a solid platform: preserving our national security by securing our borders, streamlining and simplifying legal immigration, developing a worker program that does not offer amnesty, and honoring the rule of law, as well as the millions around the world–including highly skilled workers we desperately need–who are abiding by that law, waiting for their turn to come to the land of the free.

Instead of running away from sound philosophy, how about working with Hispanics to develop a viable outreach effort, identifying swing Hispanic voters, and offering a targeted message? None of that was done effectively in the last election by Republicans. It sure was by Democrats.

And it’s high time to be a little savvier about the messenger with the various demographic groups among whom Republicans tanked. That means at all levels of Party leadership, as well as Congressional leadership, a little more diversity than we’ve seen thus far is called for. That’s means some of the establishment leaders might have to step aside, but if they don’t wake up, none of them will have leadership positions. This isn’t a suggestion for quotas or any such nonsense. It’s an acknowledgement of the fact that to many out there, the Republican Party appears to be the party of white men. Optics and impressions are important. It’s time to recognize that.

The key for Republicans right now is learning the true lessons from the election. So many Republicans want to take what they see as the easy way out–“oh heck, let’s just change the message and be done with it.” But winning elections is a painstaking process. And it’s not easy. Ever. Winning is a process that combines compelling principles and positions, courageously and wisely articulated, with the nitty gritty, hard work of developing state of the art voter lists and highly organized grass roots efforts. As Republican consultants rake in millions on glossy but untargeted direct mail, phone calls and tv ads, the Party is getting its clock cleaned in the messaging and grassroots department with certain demographic groups. And it is in grave danger of letting the leftist media and Democrats guide it in formulating defensive positions in response to the masterful vilifying by the president. No question about the lesson that would be learned from that: disaster.

Ms. Obenshain is the Vice President of Young America’s Foundation and author of the new book, Divider-in-Chief: The Fraud of Hope and Change, published by Regnery Publishing, a unit of Eagle Publishing, which also owns Human Events.