The Democrats' immigration dilemma
Why immigration reform is too hot an issue for the Democrats
The Democrats' immigration dilemma
The Sunday print column, updated and expanded:
I hold these truths to be self-evident:
1. The Phillies are toast in '10 unless they find a closer.
2. Sandra Bullock deserves far better than a tattooed biker.
3. In a volatile election year, the politicians in D.C. would rather detonate grenades in their mouths than tackle the immigration issue.
I'd bet that Democrats and Republicans alike would rather talk baseball or celebrity gossip; unfortunately, they're stuck these days with a hot politicial issue that has very little foreseeable upside - for either party. That's why the prospects this year for comprehensive immigration reform are roughly equivalent to the odds of a bipartisan Senate resolution extolling the music and media savvy of Lady Gaga.
Granted, Senate Democrats late last week announced a "conceptual proposal" that would combine tough border security provisions with a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegals, but an actual working bill - much less a bill that could pass in 2010 with minimal political fallout - seems to be little more than a pipe dream. I'll detail the Democrats' dilemma shortly; suffice it to say that, for the moment at least, their upside is merely rhetorical.
It's easy to see why Senate Democrats, and the White House, have been so tempted lately to put immigration on the front burner - if only as a cudgel they can use to pound the GOP. The new Arizona law empowering cops to stop and question brown-skinned people, on merely the "reasonable suspicion" that they might be illegal immigrants, was enacted by a Republican regime, and thus becomes fresh grist for the Democratic argument that the GOP is inhospitable to Hispanics. Which happens to coincide with the Hispanics' growing perception that the GOP is inhospitable to Hispanics.
In fact, the Arizona law is so overwrought that even some Republicans are publicly condemning it. For instance, Connie Mack, a Florida GOP congressman, said this weekend that the reasonable-suspicion standard "is reminiscent of a time when the Gestapo in Germany stopped people on the street and asked for their papers without probable cause." And Massey Villarreal, a former national chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, said, “It’s insulting to have Republican leaders across the country applauding this racist law."
Democrats are eager to reap the apparent short-term political rewards. Hispanics are now the nation's largest minority group, the fastest growing cohort in the electorate, and they tend to punish intolerance at the polls. Immigration reform, with a path-to-citizenship provision, was actually a George W. Bush priority - until the party caved to its angry white conservative base. In the subsequent 2008 election, a surge of Hispanic voters greased Barack Obama's victories in heretofore red states such as Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Virginia, Florida, and even Indiana, thereby validating pro-Bush commentator Fred Barnes' '07 warning that the GOP "won't return as America's majority party if it lets the Hispanic vote slip away."
But some conservatives can't seem to help themselves. Just the other day, a California congressman named Duncan Hunter insisted that American citizens be kicked out of the country if their parents are illegal immigrants. Duncan somehow overlooked the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has decreed since 1898 that the children of foreigners automatically become citizens if they're born on U.S. soil. The high court has based several such rulings on the Fourteenth Amendment's citizenship clause, which in turn takes its inspiration from English common law. It's fascinating how often the people who want to "take the country back" seem so ill-educated about the Constitution they profess to revere.
Democrats also like the idea of leveraging this intolerance theme in order to boost Hispanic turnout this year in key western Senate races. Senate leader Harry Reid will likely keep his seat only with massive help from his burgeoning Hispanic base in deeply recessionary Nevada. The same is true in Colorado, where vulnerable freshman Michael Bennet hopes to prevail. And Barbara Boxer may need similar assistance from California's Hispanics; indeed, you know the '10 political climate must be bad for Democrats if Barbara Boxer is in peril.
By the way, some conservatives contend that legal Hispanic immigrant voters won't flock to the Democrats, supposedly because the legals have no sympathy for the illegals. This argument persists, despite the fact that it has no basis in reality. After California Republicans targeted illegals in an infamous 1994 referendum, the legal Hispanic voters retaliated at the polls in 1996, basically erasing all Republicans from all the top statewide elected offices; a decade and a half later, the state GOP has yet to recover. Fred Barnes, the aforementioned conservative commentator, understood the legals' thinking; as he warned three years ago, legal Hispanics perceive attacks on illegals as evidence that "Republicans don't want them as workers or as neighbors and don't want them to have the opportunity to become citizens." Indeed, this morning The Wall Street Journal quoted some third-generation Hispanic Republicans who say they might renounce their GOP registrations because of the Arizona law.
Hence the Democrats' rhetorical opportunity. The big hitch for Democrats, however, is that they don't intend to actually do anything about the immigration issue.
They're fine with the rhetorical approach - denouncing the Arizona law, stuff like that - because words are cheap currency in the Washington cave of winds. But after health care reform and (soon) financial reform, Obama's Democratic allies will have no energy for yet another major crusade, especially one that would put the squeeze on so many lawmakers from culturally conservative districts. In Obama's words the other day, immigration "generates a lot of emotions, and the politics are difficult."
No doubt you can spot the Democratic dilemma: The party needs the Hispanics to vote heavily in those western Senate races, but Hispanics might skip the balloting if they (rightly) conclude that the Democrats are more talk than action. In fact, the New Democratic Network, a center-left think tank, warns in a new report: "The Hispanic community is still with President Obama and the Democrats, and still wary of the GOP, but their intention to vote this fall trails far below the national average. For a community that has voted in very high numbers in recent elections, this is a change, and perhaps a sign of their disappointment in Washington’s continued inability to resolve the issue so close to their communities and their families – immigration reform."
But the problem, for Democrats, is that Hispanics are not the only people who vote. Hispanics comprised nine percent of the '08 electorate - an impressive share, given their previous history - but that also means that more than 90 percent of the '08 electorate was not Hispanic. And midterm electorates, by tradition, are overwhelmingly white. And a huge chunk of those white voters are hurting in this bad economy. They're focused on bettering their household budgets, not on the immigration reform issue - which, according to the polls, continues to rank low on the list of national priorities.
For every Harry Reid in Nevada, there is a Jason Altmire in western Pennsylvania. Altmire, a vulnerable centrist Democrat from a Republican-leaning district, saus he wouldn't vote for path-to-citzenship immigration reform if it came up. In his backyard - as in the districts of other centrist Democrats - immigration reform is either assailed as "amnesty," or simply perceived as a distraction.
It was tough enough to push reform in good economic times (the now distant days of 2007); politically, it'd be doubly difficult to try now, when so many working-class and middle-class people are in pain. This is precisely why Democratic leaders will confine themselves to talk (Obama on Wednesday: "I've been unwavering in saying what we need to do"). If they actually pushed the issue for real, they would risk looking as if they were out of touch with most voters care about - namely, jobs. Assailing the Arizona law may cement the Democrats' ties to Hispanic voters, but the latest Gallup poll reports that swing-voting independents favor the law by a margin of 50 to 39 percent.
And if any politician needs a reminder about this immigration issue's volatility, consider what happened last week to Gordon Brown, the British prime minister whose job is on the line in next Thursday's election. A voter in his party confronted him and demanded to know, "All those Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?" Brown replied patiently and substantively, but, minutes later, unaware that his mike was still on, he groused that she was "just sort of a bigoted woman."
A firestorm has ensued. Brown had tiptoed around the issue for weeks - and wound up ingesting his foot. Which merely proves the point I made earlier about the appeal of a live grenade.