Judging from the latest polls, it might be a good time for John McCain to reconnect with the Republican base. The Arizona senator is no longer the media-anointed frontrunner by a long shot and could benefit from a high-profile initiative to rally the GOP faithful.
Instead McCain has decided it would be a better idea to cosponsor legislation with Ted Kennedy. Within the next two weeks, this dynamic duo plans to introduce the latest version of their comprehensive immigration reform bill. The Washington Times has reported that McCain was virtually the only Republican that Democrats involved in serious negotiations about how to move forward on border security. The details are still murky, but the resulting measure is sure to propose legalizing millions of current illegal immigrants -- something that divides Republicans and conservatives like no other issue can.
The Boston Globe described it as "a bill that's likely to restart a tense debate in Congress." The Straight Talk Express notwithstanding, it is also likely to be a debate shrouded in euphemism.
Begin with the problem this legislation is intended to address comprehensively -- illegal immigration. To ordinary voters, people who cross the border illegally and remain in the United States are illegal immigrants, perhaps illegal aliens. But in the debate on Capitol Hill they will become "undocumented workers," as if they merely misplaced some paperwork. Sometimes they will just be called "immigrants," as if being a legal immigrant is a meaningless distinction. Other politicians prefer the phrase "willing workers," which usually travels in pairs with "the jobs Americans won't do."
There will also be a great deal of confusion about how to describe what the McCain-Kennedy bill offers illegal immigrants. Opponents of the legislation are sure to insist that it is an "amnesty," a word that will irritate supporters to no end. A Republican National Committee member from Florida complained recently that to "some people, the issue of amnesty is a litmus test and anything short of a concentration camp is amnesty."
Rather than calling it an amnesty, backers prefer to say it is an opportunity for "temporary workers." Eligible illegal immigrants would be able to participate in a program for such workers and may eventually end up on a "path to citizenship." Of course, if most of the temporary workers take a path to citizenship, then they are not really temporary.
Advocates of a guest worker program along these lines have their own problems with the definition of amnesty. They insist that such proposals can't be an amnesty if illegal immigrants must learn English, pay fines, pass a background check, and make good on their back taxes before they can qualify. Modifying slightly the Clinton-era Democratic mantra about "people who work hard and play by the rules," Ted Kennedy told the Globe his bill was designed to help people who work hard and "basically played by the rules."
Others point out that any comprehensive legislation would beef up the border patrol, crack down on employers of illegal immigrants, and perhaps even continue funding for the security fence authorized last year. The last may be a McCain-engineered compromise, since he generously allowed in an interview with Vanity Fair that he'd "build the goddamn fence" if voters want it.
IN 1986, CONGRESS PASSED and President Reagan signed a bill that allowed illegal aliens to stay in the country in exchange for learning English, paying fees and fines, and passing a background check. The same legislation toughened border security and imposed employer sanctions.
This bill was described, by supporters and opponents alike, as an amnesty. (Though it is worth noting that the path to citizenship created by the 1986 law was much shorter than anything likely to pass Congress today.) Phrases like "earned legalization" and "adjusted status" may be to amnesty what "revenue enhancement" is to a tax increase.
All these word games are an attempt to elide a real immigration debate. Are the country's current immigration laws too strict or too lenient? Is America suffering a labor shortage or are annual entries too high? Will new guest workers relieve the pressure on our borders or further inflame it? And most sensitive of all: How can we curtail the illegal immigration the American people say they oppose while preserving the goods and services illegal immigrants offer, which many Americans rather like?
This is why the immigration action, as opposed to confusing immigration talk, is so fraught with political peril -- especially for Republicans. Last year's immigration legislation failed when the White House tried unsuccessfully to persuade GOP legislators to go along with a bill that most Democrats supported and a majority of Republicans opposed.
Now that the Democrats control Congress, the chances of passage are better but the political dynamics are pretty much the same. The House Republican leadership once again has come out against the McCain-Kennedy approach. The louder voices among the base are likely to agree.
So what is McCain thinking? Perhaps he was emboldened by the 2006 election results in his state of Arizona, where immigration hawk Congressman J.D. Hayworth went down to defeat while Congressman Jeff Flake -- a sponsor of McCain-Kennedy's House companion bill -- was reelected and remains a conservative rising star.
It's possible. But let me make a prediction: If by 2008 McCain is still seen as siding with Kennedy against most Republicans on this divisive issue, he will be in deep trouble. And no euphemism will be able to make it sound better.
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