The single biggest mistake Mitt Romney made during the election was to swing to the right on immigration. As one Republican strategist put it, his inane suggestion that Latinos "self-deport" from America ensured that Romney "self-deported from the White House."
Republicans were right in thinking that Hispanic voters care about jobs like everyone else. Many are also socially conservative Catholics and small-business owners. But the GOP, and their candidate, missed a critical point. Republicans made Latinos feel unwelcome -- in their communities, in their country, in their party.
Yes, Republican ranks include attractive young Hispanics like Florida's Sen. Marco Rubio and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez. But they also feature Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and Maricopa County (Ariz.) Sheriff Joe Arpaio, outspoken xenophobes who demonize illegal immigrants.
"Our party is scaring the heck" out of Latinos, said former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. Joshua Trevino, a former speechwriter for the second President George Bush, told The New York Times that Hispanics will never vote Republican if they think the party "just doesn't want (them) as a neighbor."
In fact, the unwelcome mat was out there for anybody who didn't fit the profile for membership in the Republican club -- aging whites, and particularly aging white Southern men. The outsider-in-chief, of course, was President Barack Obama, repeatedly characterized by hard-line conservatives as an alien "other," a closet Muslim who lacked a legitimate birth certificate and flirted with foreign ideologies like European socialism and African anti-colonialism.
All the other "others" got the message. Loud and clear. Republicans scared the heck out of them. Ninety-three percent of African-Americans voted Democratic, as did 73 percent of Asians and 71 percent of Hispanics. Romney got three out of five white voters, but they constituted only 72 percent of the electorate, and their power will continue to diminish in the years ahead.
Republicans who didn't fail third-grade math understand the implications of these results. Here's former Congressman Henry Bonilla of Texas: "I can't imagine that if you're a Republican and have any level of sanity left, that you did not feel this earthquake and want to do something about it before your whole political future craters." Or GOP pollster Glen Bolger: "We have to stop closing the door on Hispanic voters. Without them, we cannot win another election."
What can open that door? Some party strategists, one Latino operative told Politico, "just want to put a sombrero on the Republican elephant." But cosmetics won't work. More speeches by Rubio or ads in Spanish won't help if the message is still the same, if the club is still closed.
There's only one option: Republican leaders have to stand up to the nativist voices in their own party, the ones who forced Romney to the right in the primaries. They have to support comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented residents who are here now and not going anywhere.
Indeed, we should want them to stay. As The Washington Post noted: "Two-thirds of them are now in the workforce; many of those have been in this country for a decade or more; and some have children born here, who are American citizens. They are a pillar of the American economy."
This is not an impossible idea. The last president to sign a bill that legalized such immigrants was that raging liberal Ronald Reagan. George Bush the Younger also supported legalization (and won 44 percent of both the Latino and Asian vote in 2004). And it's a popular idea. In exit polls, two out of three voters favored offering undocumented residents a "chance at legal status," and that included three out of five whites and half of all Romney supporters.
Some influential conservatives are already on board -- columnists George Will and Charles Krauthammer and radio host Sean Hannity. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has opened talks with the Democratic point man on immigration, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, and Schumer told "Meet the Press" that "we have a darned good chance ... to get something done this year."
Obama and his allies have to seize the moment. They might be tempted to drag their feet, blame the Republicans and cement the allegiance of the "others," but that would be a huge political and moral mistake. If Obama signs the legislation, Democrats will still get most of the credit. And America will be a better place, benefiting from the energy, patriotism and taxes generated by millions of new citizens.