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GOP tones down its harsh talk on immigration, but is the damage already done?

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  August 31, 2012 02:07 PM

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The Republican Party on display at this week’s national convention was notable for its absences: George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, and, most significantly, seemingly any mention of a border fence, Arizona’s crackdown on illegal immigrants, or the need to round up an estimated 12 million undocumented workers. These latter omissions are the most significant, and perhaps the most lasting.

It’s quite possible that what happened this week was not a cosmetic cover-up, but rather an actual shift in tone and, perhaps, policy: Illegal immigrants are no longer playing the scapegoat role once played by welfare queens and gay-marriage activists.

Is this shift for real? Democrats are entitled to be skeptical. During the Republican primaries, the issue of illegal immigration was a weekly debate staple, a source of competition among potential nominees to express ever-greater disgust over the supposedly unstoppable parade of workers coming across the border from Mexico, amid demands for a security fence, repudiation of guest-worker plans, and even condemnation of universities that educate the sons and daughters of immigrants.

GOP concerns about illegal immigration, while legitimate, were always overblown: Border crossings are down under President Obama. But portraying the illegal immigration issue as an unbridled danger played well with some segments of the Republican base, and lent itself to harsh, law-and-order rhetoric.

Alas, the costs of that harshness proved to be great, too. Many Hispanics perceived a sense of intolerance behind those statements, and their skepticism now jeopardizes Mitt Romney’s electoral chances in states like New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, and even Arizona. Declining Hispanic support for Republicans could easily prevent Romney’s election. So the convention organizers stocked up on at least 10 Hispanic speakers over three days, culminating in Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s introduction of Romney on Thursday night, which included some snippets of Spanish.

Just as strikingly, the non-Hispanic speakers, including Ann Romney, made sure to honor the nation’s immigrant roots; the stories of ancestral hardship came to sound clichéd and tiresome, but they became, if anything, more pronounced as the convention went on. Will Romney now, as promised, turn around and push for a fence along the vast border with Mexico? Perhaps, but after this week, there are some doubts. If he fulfills that particular promise, he may be walling in his, and his party’s, future. And, to judge from this convention, he clearly knows it.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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