POLITICS

Byron York: Immigration reform, gay marriage could divide GOP

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Photo - SEATTLE, WA - DECEMBER 6: Brendon K. Taga (L) and Jesse Pageat, the second couple to receive a same-sex marriage license in Washington state, at the King County Recorder's Office on December 6, 2012 in Seattle, Washington. The office opened at 12:01 AM PST to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples for the first time, after Washington voters chose to legalize same-sex marriage in November's election. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)
SEATTLE, WA - DECEMBER 6: Brendon K. Taga (L) and Jesse Pageat, the second couple to receive a same-sex marriage license in Washington state, at the King County Recorder's Office on December 6, 2012 in Seattle, Washington. The office opened at 12:01 AM PST to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples for the first time, after Washington voters chose to legalize same-sex marriage in November's election. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)
Politics,Byron York,Politics Digest

Inside the Republican National Committee, the group assigned to review the GOP's 2012 defeats was known informally as the "autopsy committee." At some point, the RNC's image-makers realized the name, even if entirely accurate, didn't convey a particularly positive message about the party. So the autopsy committee became the "Growth and Opportunity Project."

In January, when the RNC held its winter meeting in Charlotte, N.C., the five members of the committee -- former Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, GOP operative Henry Barbour, longtime Jeb Bush ally Sally Bradshaw, South Carolina Committeeman Glenn McCall, and Puerto Rico Committeewoman Zori Fonalledas -- gave a preview of their findings. They said the report would stress Republican messaging, get-out-the-vote efforts, technology and outreach to Hispanic and other minority voters, plus review the party's debate and presidential primary schedules.

One thing the report would not be, they stressed, was a policy guide for Republican candidates. "We're not a policy group," said Fleischer, "and we're not going to make policy recommendations."

"On specific issues, that's not for us to lead on," added Barbour. "Elected officials and candidates lead on issues, so I don't see us getting into that."

Now, the report is out, and the committee has kept mostly to its promise. But not completely -- and a couple of exceptions to the no-policy rule could cause Republicans plenty of headaches in the future.

First, the committee declared that the GOP "must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform." "If we do not," the committee said, "our party's appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only."

Committing so firmly to comprehensive immigration reform is not only a measure of the GOP's anxiety over its dismal showing among Hispanic voters last November. It's also a gamble that risks exacerbating tensions between the party's elites and grass roots.

If comprehensive immigration reform fails on Capitol Hill -- and it might -- it will likely be the result of Republican opposition. There are a million things that could go wrong in the fragile talks to shape reform proposals in both Senate and House. The final Senate bill might end up more the work of Charles Schumer than of Marco Rubio. Some Republicans might abandon ship. The GOP could end up divided against itself.

The result would probably widen the divide between the party's elite and the grass roots, while failing to win the votes of any more Hispanic voters. "Two-thirds of Republican voters believe a pathway to citizenship will just encourage more illegal immigration," says pollster Scott Rasmussen, "and 58 percent of all voters believe federal policies continue to encourage illegal immigration."

Rasmussen says Republicans would get over those reservations if they believe "the border is truly secure and the government is making a serious effort to limit illegal immigration." But so far they don't trust the government to live up to its promises. If immigration reform increases that distrust -- a real possibility -- then the RNC will be on the wrong side of the issue.

The RNC's other exception to the no-policy rule involves gay marriage. "There is a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and rights of gays -- and for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the party is a place they want to be," the report says. "If our party is not welcoming and inclusive, young people and increasingly other voters will continue to tune us out."

That is not a flat-out declaration that the RNC supports gay marriage -- but it's pretty close. In addition, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, in introducing the report Monday, said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, had "made some pretty big inroads" into broadening the party's appeal by declaring support for gay marriage last week.

Again, the report's position puts the RNC in danger of a breach with key grass-roots supporters. In a new ABC News-Washington Post poll, just 34 percent of Republicans support gay marriage while 59 percent oppose it. Among those who call themselves conservative Republicans, support is at 24 percent, with 71 percent opposed. On another hot-button issue sure to receive extensive coverage in the press, the Washington-based party elites have placed themselves in opposition to the grass roots.

A lot of what the RNC autopsy committee recommends is uncontroversial. The party certainly needs an upgrade in technology, voter contact, communications -- in pretty much every aspect of its operations. But its two forays into policy could come back to haunt the RNC in the not-too-distant future.

Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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