At the start of 2013, I really thought immigration reform was going to happen. Unlike every Obama-supported initiative that Republicans had opposed, the cold political logic of cooperation was obvious: Republicans would alleviate their crippling weakness with Latino voters while Obama would gain a major policy accomplishment. The only real loser in the deal would be the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, who would lose a powerful issue, but Hillary Clinton was not going to be in the room when the deal was cut.
It didn’t happen. The failure of the House to pass a bill of any kind represents a fascinating case study of a party unable to act on its recognized political self-interest. This was not like, say, the stimulus, where the GOP’s short- and long-term goals were clearly served by total opposition to any bill that would lessen economic pain. It was not even like health care, where Republicans traded away a chance to influence health-care policy in order to reap the immediate political benefits of polarized opposition. Here are four thoughts on a self-inflicted wound:
1. Republicans are blaming Obama’s record of selectively enforcing the law in order to advance his own agenda as the reason to oppose a bill. But this is irrelevant, or even backwards.
Obviously, a significant and vocal segment of the Republican base opposes the merits of any liberalization of immigration policy. But Obama has significant power to liberalize immigration policy on his own. So the substantive question for restrictionists is not whether they could use their leverage over the House to pass an immigration bill that’s better than current policy. The question is whether they could use their leverage to pass a bill that’s better than the policy that will exist after Obama unilaterally rewrites it.
2. Some Republicans have taken seriously the need to reposition the Party so that it can win a presidential election without the benefit of a recession or some other extraordinary circumstance. But the “reformist” Republicans are internally dividing over immigration policy, which is why the Party’s reform manifesto ignored the issue entirely.
More broadly, the Republican reformers have directed most of their attention to crafting a platform for their Party’s 2016 presidential nominee, mostly or entirely neglecting the Party’s Congressional wing. But Congress matters, a lot. The Republican House would heavily influence the agenda of a prospective Republican president, and its dysfunction will make it harder for Republicans to win the presidency in the first place.
3. Republicans will face little if any blowback during the upcoming midterms, because the battleground states and districts have almost no Latinos. After that, the immigration issue becomes poisonous. Immigration reform with a path to citizenship is extremely popular. The failure of a bill ensures that, at worst, Republicans will alienate Latinos again in 2016 by competing for the restrictionist vote; and at best, will hand Democrats a powerful issue to use against them in the general election. It also hands the most ideologically extreme Republican candidates (like Ted Cruz or Rand Paul) a weapon to use in the primaries against more politically pragmatic Republicans (like Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, or even Paul Ryan).
4. The GOP’s worst problem is that Obama’s unilateral relaxation of immigration enforcement will add a newer and more potent dimension to the immigration issue. No longer will Republicans merely have to promise to oppose reform legislation. They will have to promise to undo what Obama has done.
This is an important distinction. A campaign promise about legislation can be easily slipped, as a president can blame any failure to comply on Congress (often rightly). A promise about executive action cannot be so easily slipped. Interest groups have a way of forcing candidates to make specific, immediate promises of executive action.
And so Republicans may well find themselves in the position of watching their nominee pledging to prosecute or deport immigrant families or children pardoned or left alone by Obama. The only way their friends, neighbors, or relatives who happen to be legal citizens can spare them will be to vote for Clinton. It may have seemed that the Republicans’ standing with immigrant communities had sunk to a new low in 2012, but in 2016, things could actually get worse.