Newt Gingrich was on Fox News Sunday last weekend, pointing out some obvious things. “The people are sending a message,” he said, and Congress — Republicans and Democrats — ignored it at their peril. He pointed to the Senate compromise immigration bill as being completely out of touch with the American people. “Border security, a test for citizenship, an English language requirement — these are 80 percent polling issues.”
As usual when he plays the role of educator, gadfly, and political entrepreneur, Newt’s right. (When it comes to running a political business, like Congress, that’s another matter.) On the emotional issue of illegal immigration, a mute gap stands between the people and their elected — and unelected — leaders. Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday himself, his establishmentarian lineage unparalleled, told Boston talk show host Howie Carr a week ago that “the whole immigration thing” meant almost nothing to him. Carr pressed him. (Wallace appears on the show for 15 minutes every Friday.) No, Wallace assured him blandly, he didn’t care about 12 million illegal immigrants.
“What does it have to do with me?” Wallace asked.
Conventional wisdom in a situation like that predicts a backlash, as indeed Gingrich did, as voters rise up in fury and chop off a whole political class at the knees. One such backlash happened in 1994, when Gingrich engineered the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives. But the most portentous backlash in recent political history took place in 1978 in California, when the voters, led by the marvelously irritating Howard Jarvis and his co-sponsor Paul Gann, passed Proposition 13 to limit property taxes and tax increases. A wave of such initiatives followed, setting the stage for the Reagan revolution on taxes.
ONLY PROBLEM IS, POLITICIANS HATE BACKLASHES. And they have done everything in their power to eliminate the possibility. State redistricting conferences, which ostensibly promote more wins for candidates of the majority party, actually see pols of both sides horse trading as they draw district lines to assure that no incumbent need ever lose. That’s what made Gingrich’s revolution so remarkable. Hardly any House seats ever change hands. And it’s world-shaking news when an incumbent Senator loses.
Recent legislation has made political insurgency even harder. The McCain-Feingold law actually put the First Amendment into play — just another loophole, as George Will trenchantly put it. And now Republicans have begun to play the same game by limiting contributions to 527s.
Most of all, politicians hate initiatives. They will look for any way around them. If they can’t get an irksome initiative struck down by the courts, as often happens in California and Arizona, they’ll simply ignore the law, the way they do in Massachusetts. Those examples I cited involve, interestingly, immigration-related laws: Benefits for immigrants in California, an English requirement in Arizona, and the abolition of bilingual ed in Massachusetts.
SO GRANT ALL THIS: That elite opinion and mass opinion are completely split on immigration, that a restrictionist-enforcement approach to immigration, both legal and illegal, enjoys the 80 percent support in the polls that Newt Gingrich cites, that people are angry, and that the country is arguably in danger, at least culturally, from a flood of immigrants that overwhelms our ability to absorb citizens. How is the widely predicted and seemingly inevitable backlash going to happen?
There is no national ballot initiative provision. Can enough candidates for Congress arise and run on hawkish immigration platforms to shift the balance of power? The most likely way for the issue to come to the fore, with an immigration hawk running in a Presidential election (not just the primaries), portends disaster, if that candidate is a Republican (Tom Tancredo). It would split the Republican vote, Perot-like, and put a plurality Democrat in office. I can’t imagine any Democrat doing it.
Military planners look first to logistics, it is said. You can only do what you can do, or, as Donald Rumsfeld put it, you go to war with the army you have. With the political forces we have, the immigration battle may not only not be able to be won, it may not be possible even to fight it.