Why Republicans Can’t Fix Their Hispanic Problem

Arthur Brooks says Republicans really can win Hispanic voters. All they have to do is change everything they stand for.

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, writes in today's Wall Street Journal that Republicans aren't as doomed with Hispanics as people think. Turnout among Hispanics is low, and Brooks says those who don't vote tend to have more conservative attitudes than those who do. He thinks one reason conservative Hispanic voters are staying home is that they care about supporting the poor and they believe Republicans don't -- so Republicans must fix that perception.

This is a plausible diagnosis, though, of course, the perception of Republican hostility toward Hispanics also matters, as Brooks notes in discussing "self-deportation." Unfortunately, the three prescriptions Dr. Brooks writes to align the Republican agenda with the interests of the poor won't work.

The first is especially problematic, because it runs directly counter to the centerpiece of today's Republican fiscal policy. Brooks urges Republicans:

"Make it clear that the safety net for the indigent and needy is not the source of our fiscal problems. It is the safety net for everyone else -- the able-bodied, the middle class, and corporate cronies -- that is driving our country to insolvency."

Set aside that the country isn't headed for insolvency. (Growth of entitlement costs is a long-term problem that can be fixed over decades, not an immediate crisis that threatens the livelihood of the poor.) Republicans won't go for this approach because they really want to cut the safety net for the indigent and needy, and they kind of like middle-class entitlements.

The latest House Republican budget deeply cuts the safety net for the poor: eliminating the Medicaid expansion from the Affordable Care Act, imposing $800 billion of further cuts to Medicaid over 10 years and cutting another $800 billion from other income-support programs like food stamps. Republicans routinely assail President Barack Obama for handing out too many food stamps. Just yesterday the Republican-controlled House Agriculture Committee passed a farm bill that would cut 2 million people from the food stamp rolls.

Republicans act much more benignly toward middle-class entitlements. The party spent the last two election cycles attacking Obama for cutting Medicare. House Republican proposals to restructure Medicare always delay implementation for 10 years, holding anyone older than 55 harmless from changes. House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan has responded to criticism of past Medicare plans that they would cut too much in future decades by making the cuts less deep.

Republicans are divided over even modest cuts to Social Security. Many Republicans favor Obama's approach of cutting benefits by changing the inflation index that is used to calculate them, but Representative Greg Walden, who heads House Republicans' campaign committee, called the proposal "kind of a shocking attack on seniors."

The middle-class safety net that Brooks wants to cut is disproportionately beneficial to old white people, who tend to vote Republican; the safety net for the needy accrues more to Democratic constituencies. Brooks is asking Republicans to act against the interests of their base voters, and they're not going to agree.

Second, Brooks tells Republicans to "put education reform in poor communities front and center." Republican ambivalence about whether there even ought to be a federal role in education makes it hard for the party to capitalize on this issue. When Republicans do try to capitalize, an excessive focus on finding market solutions leads them to be overconfident in the promise of school choice and too hesitant to support reforms that work within the public school system.

For example, many conservatives and Republicans are attacking federal Common Core standards that are improving primary and secondary school curricula in most states. Last month, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution opposing the standards, which have been adopted in 45 states.

Conservative opposition isn't universal; Sol Stern, my former colleague at the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, has been shouting from the rooftops that conservatives (and liberals!) ought to support Common Core. But many on the right are more interested in opposing anything Obama favors than in improving educational outcomes. It's not helping to burnish the party's education bona fides.

Third, Brooks says that conservatives should promote a strong family culture to help lift people out of poverty. "This means ending tax and welfare incentives that discourage marriage and encourage children out of wedlock, rewarding work over unemployment benefits, and a host of other pro-poor policies," he says.

There are two problems with this argument. One is that Republicans typically use this kind of rhetoric to justify gutting the safety net for the needy that Brooks says he wants to preserve. If you intend to keep welfare programs while stripping out the anti-work incentives they create, you need to be very specific about how you plan to do so. The other is that it's simply not clear how much the government can do to change social behaviors such as divorce and out-of-wedlock childbirth.

According to Brooks, all conservatives need to do to win over nonvoting conservative Hispanics is junk their whole fiscal policy and replace it with one their base voters will hate, develop a national approach to fixing education for the poor, and find a way for government to get people to marry before having kids and stay married.

If that's what it will take for Republicans to win over Hispanic voters, the party is in even more trouble than I thought.

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