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Five Bold Moves Republicans Should Make (But Won’t)

November 24, 2012

Republicans are trying to figure out how they lost an election they were so certain they would win. Some of them think they lost because there are more “takers” than “makers,” because the “white establishment” is outnumbered, because Mitt Romney wasn’t conservative enough, or because the party didn’t articulate its conservative message clearly enough.

But some Republicans realize that they lost because they have allowed a vocal and strident fringe to take over the party. Those Republicans understand that they need to move the party to the center, not to the right, to appeal to more Americans. They have to be more interested in governing than in winning; less interested in ideological purity than in solving problems.

I think there are meaningful changes that Republicans could make to move to the center, shed their “party of no” image, and acknowledge demographic reality – without betraying their basic conservatism. Here are five suggestions:

Immigration reform. We’ll take the obvious one first: Republicans should enthusiastically endorse immigration reform. If Republicans want to make serious inroads into the Latino, Asian-American, African-American and gay vote, they need to stop stigmatizing the “other,” meaning everyone who isn’t white, male, Christian and heterosexual. Immigration is a really good place to start.

As antagonistic as Republicans have become to immigration, immigration reform can be done in a way that complements some of the core Republican values. Keeping immigrant families together is pro-family, so Republicans should agree to open immigration to family members of citizens and legal residents and close deportation to law-abiding illegal residents who are family to citizens and legal residents.

Freedom and opportunity are Republican values, so immigration should be open wider to people whose freedoms and opportunities are cramped by their home governments: religious and ethnic minorities, gay people in anti-gay societies, women in brutally misogynistic societies. Republicans should welcome skilled workers, but also unskilled laborers who will gladly do the jobs that Americans don’t want.

In exchange for easing up on those already here, and their families, Republicans could certainly get Democrats to agree to tougher border protection – build that fence from the Gulf to the Pacific, add border patrols, whatever.

Push statehood for Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. How more boldly to contradict their “white establishment” image than to invite to statehood a Hispanic territory and a majority African-American city? How better to undo the damage of their voter suppression campaign than by offering full franchise to the two jurisdictions most symbolic of American disenfranchisement?

Statehood would certainly work against Republicans’ short-term electoral interests by awarding House and Senate seats, and Electoral College votes, to the Democrats. Republicans should set the proposal out as a challenge to themselves: As we undertake to re-make our party in the diverse image of America, we set ourselves the goal of persuading two of the least Republican populations in the country that our party can work for them. If Republicans can win votes in P.R. and D.C., they can win the votes of African-Americans and Hispanics nationwide.

Puerto Rico is having terrible problems with violent crime, especially drug-related crime. With less than half the population of New York City, Puerto Rico had more than twice the homicides in 2011. Poverty is chronic and educational achievement is poor – as many as 40 percent of secondary school students drop out, and more than half of college students never graduate. Republicans should develop a five-year plan to address these serious problems, at the end of which Puerto Ricans would choose among statehood, independence, or enhanced commonwealth status. The status quo, with its colonial overtones, should not be an option, and Republicans should dedicate the five years to selling America to Puerto Ricans. (I personally favor statehood, but I also think that Puerto Ricans should decide on statehood from a position of independence.) If Republicans can figure out a way to make statehood appealing to Puerto Ricans, they will have made themselves more appealing – certainly to Hispanics, but more generally as well.

End the voter suppression campaign. Republicans should forthrightly acknowledge that it is un-American to try to keep people from voting just because you disagree with them. It is American to enthusiastically welcome everyone to vote, and then campaign hard for their votes. Republicans should disavow “voter ID” laws, limitations on early voting, and other measures targeted at Democratic voters. Republicans should enthusiastically endorse maximizing voter turnout, not reducing it – Republicans should campaign on their willingness to be judged by voters.

Propose a “states rights” approach to same-sex marriage. I’m not going to suggest that Republicans should support marriage equality; I’m idealistic, not naive. But after losing four same-sex marriage referendums on Election Day, Republicans have to read the writing on the wall. Republicans should stop insisting that even states that want to license same-sex marriages should be barred from doing so.

Republican hostility to gay people costs them, not only with gay voters and their families, but also, critically, with young people.  Strident opposition to same-sex marriage contributes heavily to the Republican image of stodgy exclusivity and retro closed-mindedness.

Republicans should drop their defense in the courts of DOMA, the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and they should not oppose legislative repeal of DOMA. Republicans should take the position that the states are free to legislate for or against same-sex marriage as each state sees fit.

Raise the debt ceiling early and without conditions. The public blames Republicans for gridlock, and debt ceiling battles are iconic examples of gridlock. No one in her right mind imagines that we can, should or will eliminate deficit spending this year; therefore, the debt ceiling must be raised, full stop. Last time around, fighting over the debt ceiling got us a federal credit rating downgrade and the “fiscal cliff.”

Republicans should acknowledge right now that holding the debt ceiling hostage was a mistake, and they should vow not to repeat it. To make their word good, Republicans should introduce legislation that raises the debt ceiling immediately and unconditionally by at least a trillion dollars – enough to get us through the current federal fiscal year, with some room to spare. The Republican message should be, We are interested in real solutions to serious problems, not grandstanding, and certainly not grandstanding that damages American credit and adds to our borrowing costs.

*          *          *

These are things Republicans should do. The chances of Republicans actually doing any of them range from slim (immigration reform) to nil (the other four). The Republican base will turn on any pundit or politician who proposes otherwise, no matter how conservative the pundit/politician’s record might be – just ask lame duck Senator Richard Lugar.

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