Why have House Republican leaders in recent days offered interviews about immigration reform — an issue most Americans do not consider an urgent policy matter — and released a short list of “Standards for Immigration Reform” knowing that they would quickly get both barrels from the conservative punditry?
In a recent Gallup poll asking which are the most important issues for the federal government to deal with in the coming year, immigration ranked fifth from the bottom in a list of 19 issues, ahead of only government surveillance of U.S. citizens, abortion, race relations, and policies towards gays and lesbians — and far behind the economy, education, healthcare, entitlement reform, and terrorism.
Another recent poll breaking down the highest priority issues by political party shows that immigration does not make the top 10 for Democrats, while it comes in ninth out of ten for Republicans. In other words — and this jibes with other Gallup analysis, though it does not say much for Americans’ economic rationality — among ordinary Americans those who care most about immigration are more likely to want less of it.
Within hours of the GOP’s reform “standards” coming out, reaction from the usual conservative corners was fast and furious, including angry denunciation of the policy, the politics, or both from Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Bill Kristol, and many others. The Drudge Report, retitling Coulter’s anti-immigrant missive as “Republicans on Suicide Watch,” accompanied the headline with a manipulated image of Boehner wearing a sombrero. Talk about a circular firing squad.
For months now, culminating in the president’s recent State of the Union address and his statement a week earlier at his first cabinet meeting of 2014 that “I have a pen, and I’ve got a phone,” Barack Obama has been touting — as if it’s a political winner with anyone outside of his radical totalitarian base — an intention to sidestep Congress because those darned “obstructionist” Republicans are just so difficult to work with.
The caricature of Republicans as the “Party of ‘No’” has some impact with the “low-information voter,” with the moderate or independent, and with the soccer mom who wants to see cooperation inside the Beltway, as if a “bipartisan” result must be a good result.
With elections as close as those we expect to see later this year in key Senate races in Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska, and possibly in my home state of Colorado, the GOP is wise to try to counter the Democrats’ cartoon-like depiction of Republicans as prioritizing Obama’s failure over the nation’s success.
Beginning a very public discussion of immigration reform with a clear, short list of Republican principles including border enforcement first, and despite the cries of “amnesty” from the right-wing of the party, is politically astute.
Most Americans, including most Republicans, believe our immigration system is broken and in need of reform, including — according to a June 2013 Fox News poll — 74 percent of poll respondents supporting a way for “the 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the country to remain in the country and eventually — years down the road — qualify for U.S. citizenship, as long as they meet certain requirements like paying back taxes, learning English, and passing a background check.”
Seventy-four percent sounds a little high, but a more recent survey asking a similar question finds a still substantial 63 percent of Americans favoring a path toward legalization of current illegal aliens. Importantly for the political calculus, as with Gallup’s results, the Public Religion Research Institute survey finds the public divided about whether immigration reform should be a top priority of our government.
The recent statements by Speaker Boehner and comments by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan describing an interest in reform tempered by their inability to trust Barack Obama to enforce the law — specifically to enforce aspects of a new law which would require border security prior to any form of legalization for current illegal aliens — fit squarely within the rational policy preferences of those Americans who are not firmly ensconced within the most pro-illegal-immigrant wing of the Democrat base nor the most anti-immigrant (illegal or otherwise) wing of the Republican base.
In short, and at the risk of giving GOP leadership credit for more cleverness than they possess, the Republicans’ recent showing-a-little-leg on immigration has been a very smart maneuver — their best in quite some time — showing that good policy is often the best politics.
Furthermore, by discussing public policy in a way which gives breathless liberal media outlets hope (and worried conservatives fear) that Democrats might gain another political victory over Republicans, Boehner and team have gotten the “mainstream” media to cover the Republican position — something they never would otherwise have done. The New York Times and Washington Posthave done the GOP a favor, albeit unintended and temporary, of making Republicans look reasonable within the political center regarding an issue on which President Obama and congressional Democrats have gambled a lot of political capital but not yet won a hand.
Republicans should debate among themselves and with the public the long-term consequences of immigration reform on the character and operation of our Republic. They should encourage national discussion about what is and isn’t “amnesty.” The GOP should show itself as comprised of willing and able problem-solvers, and, as John Boehner aptly put it, the alternative rather than just the opposition.
Unlike Ann Coulter (but realizing that her arguments are serious), I am less worried — at least today — about the policy and long-term political implications of the Republican “standards” than I am about the effect of an immigration debate on the 2014 midterm elections.
The biggest problem with the discussion about immigration is simple: timing.
Not only will it likely divide the GOP at a time when unity maximizes the chances of making Harry Reid the minority leader, but more importantly it distracts from the key issues on which Democrats are vulnerable which, as explained earlier, happen to be the issues that voters care most about — a list that does not include immigration.
An increasing advantage in two of the three issues which Gallup found to be of highest priority to voters, the economy and healthcare policy, was just handed to the GOP in the form of Tuesday’s Congressional Budget Office budget projection update.
In short, Obamacare is an assault on the American dream, lowering employment and income, especially for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. (Please see here for my more detailed analysis of the CBO report’s discussion of Obamacare’s impact on the labor market.)
Democrat-caused problems laid out by the CBO report along with stories about the ongoing destruction of private health insurance in America should be paired with Republican-proposed solutions to create the main conversations that Republicans should have with voters for the next nine months. Anything else, other than a few words to remind voters that the GOP remains truly a party of ideas and not just the “Party of ‘No’,” is an ill-considered distraction.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) gave the best and most realistic answer, saying on Tuesday that immigration reform will not happen this year. But the key for Republicans is to make clear that they are no more (and arguably less) to blame for the lack of immigration “progress” (though many on the right would not view it as such) than Democrats are.
Immigration reform remains an important policy goal for our country’s economy, security, and rule of law. But for the rest of 2014, Congressional Republicans should let their ideas simmer, occasionally reminding the public of their fundamental approach to the issue but not bringing a bill up for a vote.
They should pound Obama and every Democrat relentlessly over the many negative consequences of Obamacare, from exploding health insurance premiums to imploding work force participation. Use Democrats’ own words against them: not just the famous (and often repeated) “If you like your plan, you can keep it,” but also lesser known inconvenient expressions of post-Obamacare Democrat thinking such as Senator Jeanne Shaheen’s (D-NH) recent remark that people should “have the option of going to their doctor and hospital” if they “are willing to pay more.”
At a House Budget Committee hearing on Wednesday morning, Paul Ryan took a step down that path, calling Obamacare a "poverty trap," a point reinforced by CBO chief Doug Elmendorf's conclusion that "The act creates a disincentive to work relative to the case were the law not in place." Democrats are unhappy and trying to push back with spin about how quitting your job is really just a new form of choice in your personal growth, but the GOP is now in the rare position of having the arguments that are both better and simpler.
After taking the Senate in 2014, Republicans in both chambers of Congress should pass a rational immigration reform bill — one which the far left and the far right will both dislike — and use that as a crowbar with which to pry voters away from the Democrats. After all, in such a scenario, Republicans win politically whether Obama signs or vetoes the bill.
Even a modest swing in the Hispanic (and Asian-American) vote toward a Republican candidate (or simply away from voting at all) could be the difference between a Republican victory and yet another disastrous defeat in a presidential election. I don’t buy the arguments that such a swing is impossible.
With midterm elections only nine months away, jumping into a full-fledged immigration debate is a dangerous distraction, particularly when no good policy outcome is conceivable and when the best election issue stands, like a Valentine’s Day rose, as a fragrant vision for GOP candidates and a thorn in the side of millions, or tens of millions, of American citizens — and dozens of worried Democrats.