A great political party with a long history can survive defeat, even learn from it and grow stronger. But a party that does not learn from its defeats, that appears unable to adapt and grow, cannot remain great. It will join the extensive collection of long-ago American parties, like the Federalists and Whigs and many another, as just another artifact of American history.
After its defeat in this year's presidential election, the Republican Party has much to learn. The principal theme of its presidential ticket -- fiscal responsibility and the economic growth it could underwrite -- was obscured by the party's know-nothings. The kind of true believers who make a fetish of their pet fears -- like the millions of illegal immigrants who are making new lives for themselves in America. But have to live in the shadows.
For years the country has been fighting this problem instead of making an honest effort to solve it by revamping the whole, broken immigration system in a way that would put this issue behind all of us. And let the country get on with business -- legally and fairly.
From time to time to time, impressive efforts have been made in that direction. Like the one by John McCain and the late Ted Kennedy in the U.S. Senate with the blessings of George W. Bush. That was the last great effort at reform, and it failed, too.
All those good-faith proposals keep falling afoul of narrow prejudices. And the kind of parochial pols who would rather inflame their constituents' nativist passions than actually address a pressing national issue that has gone ignored for entirely too long. With the result that the GOP has become identified, especially among Hispanic voters, as the anti-immigrant party.
That's strange, for the Hispanic community ought to be natural Republican territory, considering the values that are synonymous with any group of hard-working American immigrants and their descendants. Like a strong work ethic and a deep attachment to their faith. In the case of Hispanic immigrants legal or illegal, that means a fealty to their church and its pro-life teachings. And a faith in the American dream.
Just listen to Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida, whose biography embodies that faith. Or pass by any construction site where bricks are being laid, sheeting put up, debris cleared, a roof repaired or stonework being done, and you know what you'll hear: Spanish. Or maybe mariachi music over a radio. The sounds of light conversation and heavy equipment.
These folks are not afraid of hard work and, far from giving up on America, they're determined to make it in the Land of Opportunity. Why would Republicans, or any political party, not court such a community? Besides blind prejudice -- and an obliviousness to its own interest.
It takes only a glance at the demographic dimensions of the Democratic sweep of this year's presidential election to recognize the GOP's myopic politics when it comes to immigration. And how costly it's proven. The Republicans' appeal to fear was easily trumped by the Democrats' politics of identity -- of race, class and ethnicity. Ideas didn't have a chance up against all that, especially among Hispanic voters.
Not long ago, Karl Rove -- the architect of George W. Bush's two presidential victories -- came to Arkansas to discuss the future of his party. Speaking at Harding University, he warned that it would be "doomed," his word, if it didn't wake up and realize what a heavy price it's paying for its alienation of Hispanic voters. A price it paid, once again, in last week's elections.
To quote Mr. Rove's prophecy in full: "If we do with Latinos what we did with African-Americans, Republicans and conservatives will be doomed." He could hardly have put plain political sense any plainer. But will his party ever wake up and shake free of the grip that its mossbacks, young and old, seem to have on its good sense?
If there is a single lesson Republicans and conservatives in general should draw from last week's election returns, it is: Estudia espanol! Learn a little Spanish, acquire a working knowledge of this vibrant culture.
Republican pols should no more be afraid of acquiring a touch of Latin brio than big-city bosses of another century shied away from speaking with an Irish lilt.
The waves of American immigration change, but the adaptability of new Americans remains strong. As for the children and grandchildren of these latest newcomers, they are not likely to forget how their mamas and papas were treated -- whether they were welcomed or shunned. Those memories will become the stuff of lasting party loyalties. If the Grand Old Party can't absorb that simple lesson of American politics and history, it won't stay grand for long.