Frank Rich on the National Circus: Immigration Reform Enters Its Death Spiral

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Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Immigration reform faces mounting obstacles, Obama cautiously enters Syria, and Mama Grizzly shows that you need to go away to come back.

The universally respected, nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office weighed in on the immigration-reform bill, estimating that it would reduce the federal deficit by nearly $1 trillion over the next two decades. Supporters of the bill were ecstatic. Meanwhile, John Boehner promised that he wouldn't bring the bill to the floor unless a majority of Republicans supported it. Who blinks first?
A week ago, I thought there was still a chance, however remote, that immigration reform might make it through Congress, if only because (in the words of Senator Lindsey Graham) the GOP would be on a “demographic death spiral” without making some amends to a Hispanic electorate that refused to obey Mitt Romney’s admonition that it “self-deport.” I’m now convinced that immigration reform is dead, no matter how much Chuck Schumer declares otherwise. If Schumer’s anti-reform adversary in the Senate, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, doesn’t succeed in derailing the bill there, it is surely doomed in the House. The radical tea-party base of the party doesn’t want it, period. As Rand Paul, once considered a possibly pro-reform vote in the Senate, now concludes, “There’s no great groundswell of Republicans telling me to vote for this.” Even a pro-reform Establishment figure like Jeb Bush has so much trouble making the case that he stumbled into arguing that immigrants are good for economic growth because they are “more fertile” than the rest of us. (Speak for yourself, white man!) As for the Congressional Budget Office estimate, why would the GOP respect those facts any more than any other facts on any policy issue, from climate change to economics? After all, the right’s own Heritage Foundation, under the leadership of that intellectual powerhouse Jim DeMint, had already come up with junk math stating that immigration reform would cost taxpayers $6.3 trillion, not save them $1 trillion. End of story and, by the way, end of Marco Rubio's presidential campaign. 

Last week, the Obama administration announced it would begin providing arms to the anti-Assad forces in Syria after concluding that loyalist troops had used chemical weapons against the rebels. Is intervening now a good idea? Is it too little, too late? Or is any involvement in an internal, sectarian conflict a bad idea after the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq?
There are no glib answers to any of these questions, and the Obama administration’s decision is no answer, either. It’s a stall for time — or, more accurately, another stall for time. Here’s what we do know: 93,000 people, many of them civilians, have been killed in the two years of fighting, and some 1.5 million people have been displaced. Here’s what we don’t know: what kind of American intervention, if any, would have made or will make a difference in what is essentially another Shia-Sunni civil war — and in this case one that potentially makes us an implicit ally of Al Qaeda in its battle against Hezbollah. Though one size doesn’t fit all, our history in Afghanistan and Iraq does not augur well, and there is close to zero support for a new war among American voters besides. And, as Jeffrey Goldberg has reported at Bloomberg, there is once again a conflict between the Pentagon and State over the best intermediate course. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army General Martin Dempsey, has pushed back against John Kerry by arguing that Kerry’s notion of a surgical strike at Assad, bombing his airfields (the same airfields used to launch those chemical weapons), is far from simple and potentially treacherous. (“To be safe, the U.S. would have to neutralize Syria’s integrated air-defense system, an operation that would require 700 or more sorties,” Goldberg writes.) Obviously the best way out of the horrific Syrian mess would be for Assad’s most powerful backer, Vladimir Putin, to enable a political solution, but, as the Obama-Putin standoff at the G8 meeting this week reveals, that’s not happening either. I’m not going to play armchair general and say that I know what the president should do in this intractable crisis, but it’s precisely because there is no simple answer that I wholeheartedly support his caution. Most of those arguing full-speed-ahead are the same conservative and liberal hawks who misread the future in pushing intervention in Iraq. 

The House approved a measure this week that would ban abortions after 22 weeks. This bill won't pass the Senate and certainly wouldn't get a presidential signature. But should pro-choice supporters be worried about it all the same?
The attempts to limit a woman’s right to abortion are real and worrisome, particularly at the ground level of the states. But this doomed effort by the congressional GOP to push an unconstitutional countrywide abortion ban is bad news for the Republican Party akin to its flameout on immigration reform. Weren’t the calmer heads in the GOP suggesting only yesterday that Republicans stop talking about abortion, rape, and contraception after their debacle with women voters in 2012? Hilariously, the House leaders think they can camouflage this new front in the war on women by drafting a female toady in Congress (Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee) to manage this draconian bill on the floor rather than the man, Trent Franks of Arizona, who actually masterminded it. Here’s further proof, not that any is needed, of the right’s self-immolating core conviction that women are stupid. 

Mama Grizzly herself returned to her former employer Fox News this week after a mere five months apart. Are you surprised that Palin and Ailes got back together so fast? And who needs whom more?
Fox News still triumphs easily over MSNBC and CNN in the ratings, but its party is out of power, and when was the last time you heard its prime-time stars Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly make any news or even any noise? Ailes needs a freak show to get people excited about walking into his tent, and no one does that better than Palin. As for Palin, what else does she have to do? Celebrity and television airtime are her oxygen, far more than her political or ideological pursuits, and having exhausted her careers in both reality television and electoral politics, it was either Fox News or a Broadway stint in Chicago singing “We Both Reached for the Gun.”