The Gaffe That Threatens Immigration Reform

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Awkward.Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Part of the fascination of the immigration-reform saga is that it provides a test of the Republican Party elite’s ability to tame its own base. For most of the Obama era, the bulging-eyed mania of the conservative activist base helpfully served the party’s interests. President Obama’s initiatives like reforming health care and stimulating the economy were at cross-purposes with the GOP’s goals, and conservative rage created a passion supporters never matched, helping make those laws unpopular as a whole. The Russian roulette debt-ceiling showdowns ultimately strengthened the hand of the Republican leadership by forcing Obama to offer concessions and making him responsible for the chaos the House GOP had sown.

For all this time, the tea-partiers seemed to hold the whip hand. But it was impossible to tell just who was leading whom. Immigration reform is the clarifying event, directly pitting the passions of the base against the party elite’s long-term survival.

As a political matter, passing immigration reform is a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition for winning national elections. The Latino vote is not going to stop growing, and while Latino voters hold left-of-center views pretty much across the board, Republican hostility to illegal immigrants is the insuperable obstacle. Political scientist Dan Hopkins compared the GOP’s voting coalition in 2012 versus 2008 and found Latino Republicans defected at a higher rate than any other piece of the party’s voting bloc.

What makes immigration reform such a no-brainer for the elite is that Republican elites not only grasp its political necessity, but, for the most part, also support it on the merits. Immigration reform is helpful to business in any number of ways, one of them being as a legalized channel for low-wage labor. The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza has a (subscriber-only) long reported piece on the Senate immigration-reform negotiations, in which an aide to Marco Rubio strips bare the dynamic with a brutal frankness that I have never seen before in American politics:

“There are American workers who, for lack of a better term, can’t cut it,” a Rubio aide told me. “There shouldn’t be a presumption that every American worker is a star performer. There are people who just can’t get it, can’t do it, don’t want to do it. And so you can’t obviously discuss that publicly.”

The idea that American workers don’t want to do certain jobs is a long cliché peddled by people who sit in soft chairs all day. American workers will do any job if it pays well enough — American workers toil in coal mines and collect garbage if they’re paid a living wage to do so. You certainly don’t have to take a cruel and ignorant view of the labor market to support immigration reform — indeed, the bill’s labor provisions were negotiated down to be acceptable to the labor movement. The point is that support for immigration reform is perfectly compatible with the ideology of top-down class warfare.

The Rubio aide quote is not only a piece of shocking candor, but also the biggest single blunder the pro-reform coalition has committed so far. Party elites may nod along when they read it, but there’s a reason nobody in politics ever says anything like this.

The quote comes at a precarious moment for immigration reform. Conservatives have formed the most plausible basis for a counterattack against the bill — they are demanding draconian restrictions on the ability of legalized immigrants to obtain any kind of subsidized health insurance, for years to come. If they can successfully frame immigration reform as an expansion, or even a tacit recognition, of the hated Obamacare, they’ll unleash the right-wing fury that has thus far failed to materialize as expected.

The question, as always, is, What will John Boehner do? The endgame of a successful law almost has to include the House passing a bill with mostly Democratic support. Boehner probably wants to pass a reform, and possibly a majority of House Republicans do, too, but there’s no chance a majority of them wants to vote for it openly. Until now, Boehner has cagily refused to commit himself to following the will of a majority of House Republicans. David Drucker’s report is ominous:

House Speaker John Boehner is not going to bring a comprehensive immigration-reform plan to the floor if a majority of Republicans don't support it, sources familiar with his plans said.

"No way in hell" is how several described the chances of the speaker acting on such a proposal without a majority of his majority behind him.

Boehner is a weak leader, who has clung tenuously to his speakership from the outset and who is given to bluffing. He has managed to hold together the passions of his base with the interests of his party because the two always pointed in at least roughly the same direction. Immigration reform may finally be the moment when he has to choose between one and the other.