Image Credits: Mike Segar/Reuters.

I think Benjy Sarlin’s piece for MSNBC on the Republicans’ changing attitudes about immigration is excellent. In particular, his observations about Brit Hume and Sean Hannity are very interesting.

At the moment, the anti-immigration argument appears to be gaining converts fast. On election night, Fox News anchor Brit Hume called the “demographic” threat posed by Latino voters “absolutely real” and suggested Mitt Romney’s “hardline position on immigration” may be to blame for election losses. On Monday, Hume declared that argument “baloney.” The Hispanic vote, he said, “is not nearly as important, still, as the white vote.”

Sean Hannity, a reliable bellwether on the right, has been on a similar journey since the fall. He announced the day after President Obama’s re-election that he had “evolved” on immigration reform and now supported a “path to citizenship” in order to improve relations with Hispanic voters. Hannity has now flipped hard against the Senate’s bill.

“Not only do I doubt the current legislation will solve the immigration problem,” he wrote in a June column, “but it also won’t help the GOP in future elections.”

It appears that most Republicans are dropping the idea that they need to do better with Latinos and adopting the idea that they need to do even better with white voters. Mr. Sarlin’s documents this very well, but he doesn’t come out and say what it means.

A new view on the right is taking hold: Romney lost because he didn’t go after whites hard enough…

…conservative commentators are convincing themselves they can find a few million more whites tucked between the couch cushions–at least enough for one more election. Two columnists have been particularly influential in this regard. Sean Trende at Real Clear Politics has argued that census data shows about 5 million mostly poor and rural white voters were “projected” to vote in 2012 based on population growth and past turnout but didn’t show up to the polls. Byron York, a columnist at the Washington Examiner, published a related piece noting that Romney would have lost even if he had racked up a majority of Latino voters.

“Recent reports suggest as many as 5 million white voters simply stayed home on Election Day,” York wrote in May. “If they had voted at the same rate they did in 2004, even with the demographic changes since then, Romney would have won.”

What Mr. Sarlin doesn’t broach is the subject of how conservatives might be able to grab a higher percentage of whites and how they might go about driving up white turnout. The most obvious way is to pursue an us vs. them approach that alternatively praises whites as the true, patriotic Americans, and that demonizes non-whites as a drain on the nation’s resources. This is basically the exact strategy pursued by McCain and especially Romney. It’s what Palin was all about, and it’s what that 47% speech was all about.

An added element was introduced by Barack Obama, whose controversial pastor and Kenyan ancestry opened up avenues for both veiled and nakedly racist appeals to the white voter. A white Democratic nominee would be less of an easy target for talk about secret Islamic sympathies and fraudulent birth certificates, but that would only make other racially polarizing arguments more necessary.

The problem is that these attacks have already been made, and they failed in even near-optimal circumstances. Accusing the Democrats of socialism, which is a race-neutral way of accusing the party of being beholden to the racial underclasses, has been proven insufficient. The only hope for a racial-polarization strategy is to get the races to segregate their votes much more thoroughly, and that requires that more and more whites come to conclude that the Democratic Party is the party for blacks, Asians, and Latinos.

That is, indeed, how the party is perceived in the Deep South, but it would be criminal to expand those racial attitudes to the country at large.

The Republicans are coalescing around a strategy that will, by necessity, be more overtly racist than anything we’ve seen since segregation was outlawed.