Killer of Immigration Reform Identified As David Brat

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GLEN ALLEN, VA - APRIL 26:  College economics professor and Republican candidate for Congress David Brat (C) poses for a photograph after attending the Henrico County Republican Party breakfast meeting April 26, 2014 in Glen Allen, Virginia. Brat went on to a surprise defeat of incumbent House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the June 10 primary.  (Photo by Jay Paul/Getty Images)
Photo: Jay Paul/Getty Images

The Wall Street Journal editorial page predictably bemoans the collapse of immigration reform and, equally predictably, insinuates that Democrats conspired to help kill it in order to benefit politically. (Favoring cooperation with President Obama on anything requires conservatives to argue that the president secretly hopes the measure will fail.) But the real news comes in the seventh paragraph, when the Journal reports that House Republicans were actually poised to pass a bill before Eric Cantor's loss freaked them out:

... a majority of GOP Members wanted an immigration reform to pass as long as they didn't have to vote for it. Before Majority Leader Eric Cantor's primary loss in Virginia last month, the House leadership's private whip count was 144 GOP votes in favor of passing a bill this year. Afterwards it was half that.

You have to pay close attention to what the Journal is reporting here. It's not saying 144 Republicans planned to vote for immigration reform. It's only saying 144 of them wanted a bill to pass. Whatever meager cooperation has occurred between House Republicans and Obama has generally employed this secret-heresy method. A majority of Republicans give the private go-ahead to bring a bill to the floor, then most of them vote against it, letting Democrats supply the votes. This insulates them from any blame from enraged tea partiers.

If the Journal's account is correct — never a completely safe assumption — then the out-of-nowhere defeat of Cantor suddenly made those hope-yes-vote-no Republicans too fearful even to go ahead with this ruse. They believe, along with the Journal, the Republican leadership, and me, that passing immigration reform is a crucial step toward regaining national viability. But the relatively distant danger of their Party's candidate losing future presidential elections paled in comparison with the immediate danger of themselves losing primary races. Brat's surprise triumph may turn out to be more consequential than anybody thought at the time.