Which Party Benefits From Immigration Reform?


Rush Limbaugh asks a pretty decent question. If Republicans need to pass comprehensive immigration reform in order to stave off demographic doom, why are Democrats so eager to help them?

No less than Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey also said, "The Republicans' presidential prospects are forever over if they don't pass this legislation."  Now, my question to that -- and I'm sorry for being so silly and naive and stupid.

But I ask myself: "Why does Bob Menendez care whether we win the presidency or not?" 

Let me ask a better question.  Why does Senator Menendez want us to win the presidency?  Why does Senator Menendez want us to be in the presidential sweepstakes?  Wouldn't Senator Menendez really love it if we were aced out? 

Limbaugh is definitely on to something. Politics is a zero-sum competition. Preserving the long-term viability of the currently constructed Republican Party ought to be a serious cause for concern for Democrats, right? Yet there are a couple of good answers too.

First, while politics is zero-sum competition, policy isn’t. A second-term president, especially, has an unusually strong incentive to secure policy gains at the expense of political gains. The Democratic Party’s long-term prospects matter less to Obama than burnishing his legacy and resolving a knotty problem in American life.

That doesn’t explain why congressional Democrats, who will remain in office past 2016, want to help Republicans avoid obsolescence. But here the logic is also a little more complex. Democrats stand to gain politically if Republicans kill immigration reform — but only if Democrats are seen as trying to pass it. It doesn’t work if Democrats make no effort to pass a bill. Indeed, it could backfire on them.

Now, if a bill passes, the credit will surely be shared, and Democrats will probably get the bigger half, since their guy is the one who gets to sign the bill in the Rose Garden. It’s conceivable that a successful bill could strengthen or simple deepen the Democrats’ standing in the Latino community. But Republicans have to do something to rehabilitate their standing with Latino voters, or they’re sunk. And since Latinos have liberal views on basically everything, comprehensive immigration reform is the straightest shot Republicans have. Republicans could try, say, embracing Obamacare, which is also popular with Latinos, but that’s even more offensive to conservatives.

It may be the case that Democrats just win the politics, regardless — they win if Republicans kill reform, and they win if they accede. Even if that were true, passing reform would at least take the issue off the table. If Republicans kill a bill, Democrats can run on it again in 2016, and basically every future election, and the underlying dynamics will get continuously better as the nonwhite share of the electorate rises every cycle. CNN’s poll shows that the Gang of Eight bill is narrowly popular, but it also creates a huge generational divide, with senior citizens strongly opposed and young voters strongly in favor. Eventually something will pass, and there’s no reason to think conservatives can get a better deal four, eight, or twenty years from now. The main question is how much political damage they will incur in the meantime.