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Thoughts on Conservatism at Restoration Weekend

At Restoration Weekend in West Palm Beach, Florida -- the annual gathering of the David Horowitz Freedom Center -- I heard the leading conservative analysts and many political leaders present their views of what led to the disastrous defeat of Mitt Romney one short week ago. Politicians were represented by Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and others, and the roster of prominent speakers included Charles Krauthammer, Bret Stephens, Steve Moore, Pat Caddell, Monica Crowley, Michael Reagan, Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, and scores more. Everyone addressed the issues of what happened and what can we do in the future. Eventually, all the videos of the events will appear on Frontpagemag.com. When they do, watch Charles Krauthammer’s analysis, to me the highlight of the weekend, and Bret Stephens' very important presentation on foreign policy and the Middle East. Both were brilliant and essential.

The event did lead me to think anew of the reasons for our defeat, and to consider the question once more of what reforms, if any, conservatism and the Republican Party in particular must make. The speeches reminded me of the old Jewish aphorism -- that when you hear two Jews arguing, you are listening to 20 different opinions. Michael Reagan began by talking about the need to build an inclusive movement and party that do not leave out scores of Americans that many conservatives seem to believe are beyond hope. His father, he reminded us, began as a liberal Democrat and knew how to speak to those whose ranks he had left. The next morning, Santorum argued for putting the social issues many call divisive front and center, and denied that he and other candidates hurt Romney’s chances by seeking to destroy him during the primaries. And so it went, the entire weekend long.

So now, here are some of my own thoughts from after the weekend's conclusion:

1. The Republican Party has to moderate its policy on immigration.

This is not simply because it needs to win the votes of Hispanic Americans. It is because a less harsh policy is in our country’s interest, and to treat or appear to treat a growing percentage of our country’s citizens as somehow anti-American means that our movement is doomed to oblivion. To some extent, this is already being done. In last week’s New Yorker, the political reporter Ryan Lizza spent much time with Texas Republicans, and showed how the largest state Republican Party in our country has rejected its once tough restrictionist policy.  As Ted Cruz, the senator-elect from Texas, told him, “‘If Republicans do not do better in the Hispanic community,’ he said, ‘in a few short years Republicans will no longer be the majority party in our state.’ He ticked off some statistics: in 2004, George W. Bush won forty-four per cent of the Hispanic vote nationally; in 2008, John McCain won just thirty-one per cent. On Tuesday, Romney fared even worse.”

This demographic truth, however, does not mean that a policy based on self-deportation, mass arrests of illegal immigrants, or building a complete barrier to illegal immigration via a fence or more border agents is the answer. The Texas Republicans once held such a tough approach, but this past year, at its state convention, the party voted overwhelmingly to change its policy. Lizza writes:

In 2010, the platform of the Republican Party of Texas included some of the country’s most restrictionist language on immigration. It referred repeatedly to “illegal aliens” and called for an “unimpeded deportation process,” elimination of all government benefits to unauthorized immigrants, and the adoption of policies that would mirror the controversial “Show me your papers” provision of Arizona’s immigration law.

Early this year, Martinez de Vara and his allies from the Texas Federation of Hispanic Republicans decided that they would rewrite the state Party platform on immigration. “There was a minority in the Party that was vocal and basically hijacking that issue,” he said. “And so we took it to the convention.” The Republican Party of Texas’s convention includes some nine thousand delegates. They met in early June, in Fort Worth. Martinez de Vara pushed new language through a subcommittee on immigration that he chaired and then through a full committee. Munisteri, the Party chairman, made sure that the issue received a thorough hearing, a move that angered a significant faction of his party. The debate came down to a contentious floor fight in which the new language was challenged four times. Martinez de Vara rose at one point and delivered the soliloquy that he gave me about how building a wall and confiscating property was big government. “When I said that on the floor of the Republican Party of Texas convention,” he said, “with nine thousand of the most diehard conservatives, people who paid two or three thousand dollars to go to Fort Worth and participate, I got seventy-five per cent of the vote. Because they all know it’s true!”

The platform no longer refers to “illegal aliens” and no longer has any language that could be construed as calling for Arizona-style laws. Instead, it proposes a “common ground” to find market-based solutions and “the application of effective, practical and reasonable measures to secure our borders.” Rather than expelling eleven million immigrants, it says, “Mass deportation of these individuals would neither be equitable nor practical.” Most significant, Martinez de Vara won adoption of language calling for a temporary-worker program. At around the time that Mitt Romney was winning the primary by attacking his opponents for being too soft on immigration, the largest state Republican Party in America was ridding its platform of its most restrictionist immigration language and calling for a program to allow unauthorized immigrants to stay in the U.S. legally and work.

[My emphasis]