Rand Paul has always supported immigration reform in general, but he is delivering a speech today forcefully advocating reform in a manner that would seem to block off any potential avenue for retreat. What makes this more interesting is that Paul has been openly floating a presidential campaign. And immigration reform is probably going to shape the 2016 Republican presidential campaign, and the presidential campaign will in turn help determine the fate of immigration reform.
Here is the lay of the land. The Republican Party’s leadership has collectively decided that its political future requires the party to support immigration reform. Republicans made a similar calculation under George W. Bush, but a conservative grassroots revolt killed the legislation. Now the party elite is attempting to tamp down a potential revolt and allow a bill to pass.
Almost certainly there will be some kind of conservative revolt. Stirring of it could be heard at CPAC, where figures like Jim DeMint, Donald Trump, and Ann Coulter issued fiery denunciations. What’s interesting is that, as of now, anti-reform conservatives have no standard bearer. All of the major 2016 figures — Paul, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, Scott Walker — support comprehensive reform. Somebody will surely emerge to represent the conservative base in an open field, but so far the political marketplace has not supplied a candidate to fill that anticipated demand.
Instead, the field looks a lot like a kind of cartel. All of the major candidates support reform, so none of them can undercut each other by appealing to anti-reform sentiment. Whichever candidate eventually emerges to speak for the anti-reform base — and one will; the lure of a mass followership and free time on Fox News is too great to pass up — will probably be a Herman Cain–esque huckster running a protest race rather than a serious candidacy.
And that potential dynamic, in turn, will shape the prospects for the passage of a bill. The key factor in passing a law is for leading Republicans in Congress, especially Rubio, to stay solid in their support. They’ll continue to support a bill as long as they feel secure that fellow Republicans won’t attack them as an Obama-loving sellout willing to let hordes on Mexicans pour forth over the border. If figures like Rubio look around and see other Republicans edging for the exits, they’ll in turn beat a retreat.
As of now, though, all the 2016 contenders can support a bill in the anticipation that their major rivals will be locked in to the same stance. The most plausible vehicle for a grassroots insurgent candidacy was Paul, who had harnessed his father’s grassroots appeal with shrewd cultivation of the party elite. With Paul signed up with the pro-reform cartel, nobody is going to make Rubio, Bush, or Ryan nervous, which means there’s little right now to stop a bill from passing the House this summer.
Update: Paul's spokesman says he does not back a "path to citizenship." But, as John Stanton explains, this appears to be more of a rhetorical evasion than a substantive change:
Paul is a savvy politician and he clearly understands that, like amnesty and "comprehensive immigration reform" before it, the phrase "pathway to citizenship" has become something of a dog whistle for conservatives, who see it as a gussied up version of amnesty.
Of course blanket amnesty isn't what lawmakers are talking about now. Instead, there is growing bipartisan backing for a system under which undocumented workers come out of the shadows, get work visas and are allowed to remain in the United States while they begin the citizenship process.
And, as Paul made clear following the speech, that's exactly what he's supporting.