WASHINGTON — The Republican Party faces an existential question: Can it make the transition to a more welcoming position on immigration without tearing itself apart or further alienating Latinos by the tenor of its internal debate? The journey is necessary, perilous and always easier to delay than begin.
Most Republicans — or at least the subset that cares about the national fortunes of the party — recognize that Mitt Romney's 27 percent showing among Latino voters was a frightening portent. While not even the worst of Romney's electoral problems — a lack of enthusiasm among white working-class voters probably takes that honor — this outcome represents collapsing support in a rising group.
There are a variety of ways to do the electoral math, but here is one: Republicans won about a quarter of the Latino vote in a nation where about a quarter of all children entering kindergarten are Latino. Republicans have a rendezvous with irrelevance, arriving faster in places such as Colorado, Nevada and Florida. While it remains possible for Republicans to win national elections with low Latino support, it becomes harder and harder over time. Eventually, a party at war with demography gets accustomed to defeat.
Confronting the problem seems even less attractive because it won't be solved in a single, symbolic vote on immigration reform. That would only allow a more extensive courtship to begin. And many Latino voters, according to the polls, believe government should take a positive role in solving social problems and encouraging economic mobility. A serious appeal to Latinos would involve not just an embrace of immigration reform but the application of creative, conservative ideas to the specific needs of a rising minority group. This explains at least a portion of conservative resistance to this political task. It requires a form of conservatism that accepts the safety net and actively seeks to extend opportunity.
But immigration reform is the threshold. As John Bunyan tells it in "The Pilgrim's Progress," Christian begins his journey by passing through a gate, and the gatekeeper's name is Goodwill. While Bunyan probably did not have ethnic politics in mind, the first Republican gate is a demonstration of goodwill.
Republican leaders in the House have taken their first, hesitant steps by issuing a set of immigration reform principles. At 804 words, their memo comes in just a little longer than this column and is notable for its vagueness. But sometimes, it's been said, it takes great courage to stand before a crowd and assert that two plus two equals four. The document embraces a phased approach: Improved enforcement first, then legal status for undocumented workers meeting stringent conditions — pay a fine, know English, no welfare benefits. Children brought to America by undocumented parents would gain citizenship. Others — and here the document is a bit fuzzy — would have to go to the end of the current citizenship line.
An element of the conservative movement has delivered its usual, considered response. "We ought not be granting citizenship to people that don't love the country," says Rush Limbaugh. "It's the end of the Republican Party. It's the end of the country as we know it." It is so easy for ideology to drain politics of humanity — to turn human beings into categories and categories into threats. Is your average undocumented construction worker, standing in line on a Saturday morning for whatever job he can get, sending money home to his family, really the image of the end of America?
There are, however, more serious criticisms about Speaker John Boehner's timing, even among those open to reform. Immigration reform is an issue that generally unites Democrats and deeply divides Republicans. Why emphasize those divisions — and highlight elements of the coalition seemingly intent on alienating Latino voters — while headed toward a midterm election? Why draw attention away from the failures of Obamacare by starting an internal GOP debate on immigration that is bound to be heated, even ugly?
There are valid questions about the timing of the inevitable Republican transition on immigration reform. But it is a good and healthy thing that the argument among House Republicans is increasingly about timing rather than destination. Boehner's initiative is simply an honest recognition of the difficult, inevitable Republican journey that lies ahead.
So back to Bunyan:
"Come, pluck up, heart; let's neither faint nor fear;
"Better, though difficult, the right way to go,
"Than wrong, though easy, where the end is woe."
Michael Gerson can be contacted at email@example.com.