By Walter Shapiro
As landslide numbers go, they were far more lopsided than Lyndon Johnson’s evisceration of Barry Goldwater in 1964, Richard Nixon’s all-but-Massachusetts 1972 humiliation of George McGovern and Ronald Reagan’s 49-state morning-in-America sweep of Walter Mondale in 1984. In numbers that should be etched on the iPhone cases of every political reporter in the land, Barack Obama obliterated Mitt Romney by a 71-to-27-percent margin among Latino voters, according to the national exit polls.
The nascent Republican attempts at re-branding in the wake of Obama’s re-election have emphasized immigration reform as a promising way to allow Republicans to again become competitive in attracting the Latino vote. This was the original vision of George W. Bush and Karl Rove—and it is a far cry from the dreams of “self-deportation” that shaped Romney’s hard-edged immigration stance. House Speaker John Boehner, in an ABC interview immediately after the election, suggested that when it comes to immigration, “a comprehensive approach is long overdue.”
While other prominent Republicans have made similar comments, Boehner’s remarks seem particularly significant since the Republican-led House has long been the impassible fence blocking comprehensive immigration reform. That dates back nearly a decade to a bipartisan deal crafted by Ted Kennedy and John McCain that offered illegal immigrants a path to citizenship (at the top of the Democratic priority list) combined with expanded guest worker programs (demanded by business groups and their Republican backers). This was a classic old-style Washington compromise in which both parties had to give in order to get. And after easily passing the Senate with the support of the Bush administration, it died in 2006 in the House.
For four years, the Obama administration said almost all the right things about supporting immigration reform, while doing virtually nothing about the issue in Congress, even when the Democrats controlled the House under Nancy Pelosi. Obama’s dramatic move last June to defer deportation proceedings against illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children represented a belated effort by the president to offer Latino voters something more than rhetoric. It worked as a political stopgap measure, but it was never designed as more than a temporary expedient.
Now the stars seem aligned for immigration to take center stage in Washington next spring. But, in reality, how bright are the once-a-decade prospects for reform? Before anyone envisions a Rose Garden signing ceremony leading to a path to citizenship for the roughly 12 million people in America illegally, it is worth stressing all the ways that bipartisanship can go awry in Washington. Especially on a set of issues as contentious and emotionally loaded as immigration.
The Piecework Problem: The lame-duck Republican House is poised to vote Friday to expand by 50,000 the number of work visas available to foreign students who obtain advanced degrees from American universities. The bill—which is hard to oppose in principle unless you are an ardent supporter of Chinese technological breakthroughs—is the sort of mischievous legislation that personifies Washington sleight-of-hand.
The proposal would scrap the so-called “green-card lottery” under which 50,000 lower-skilled workers are admitted to the country every year. The legislation, which is opposed by the Obama White House, would also cherry-pick one of the most popular aspects of immigration reform (high-tech visas) and thereby eliminate the need for many business groups to support comprehensive reform.
The Dream Act, embraced by the Obama administration, represents the other side of the coin. It would take the most emotionally appealing illegal immigrants (those brought to the country as children) and give them their own path to citizenship. Those eligible for the Dream Act make for compelling TV ads because many of them do not remember their home countries and cannot be blamed for illegal border crossings by their parents. But if you take the most likable 1.5 million illegal immigrants out of the equation, it will make it that much harder to pass legislation to regularize the status of the other 10 million people here without valid papers.
Sometimes in governing, incremental steps like the Dream Act are preferable to continued inaction based on dreaming about the impossible. But the challenge for those who favor comprehensive immigration reform is to decide whether clinging to an unwieldy Grand Bargain (a path to citizenship for all in exchange for expanded guest worker programs) is pragmatic or a sign of unrealistic stubbornness.
The Self-Interest Problem: House Republicans probably worry far more about a 2014 primary challenge on their own right flank than they do about the party winning the White House in 2016. So all the talk about the Republican Party recasting itself to appeal to Latino voters runs up against that very personal Capitol Hill question: “What about my reelection campaign?”
The gap between national parties and the parochial concerns of individual legislators is as old as the republic. But political polarization and the proliferation of one-party congressional districts make things far more acute. That is why the number of Republican volunteers—particularly in the House—willing to take personal political risks to help the party deal with its problems with Hispanic voters is probably limited.
Also (and, yes, this is hard to remember) not everything on Capitol Hill is entirely cynical. Many conservative Republicans were being sincere, and not just playing to their party’s base, when they said things like: “We must never reward illegal behavior. I will never support amnesty for illegal immigrants.” If many Republicans have to reverse their unswerving opposition to higher taxes to deal with the “fiscal cliff,” they are unlikely to be eager to also do a 180-degree turn on immigration reform.
The Magic Bullet Problem: The lopsided exit poll numbers may soon fade from Republican memory or be cubby-holed under the heading, “Mitt Romney’s Problems.” It is always easy for a political party to decide that the next election will be different and that their problems with the voters are exaggerated. In the 1980s, the Democrats lost three stinging presidential elections in a row before they made more than token efforts to recast the party.
That explains why the solution for many Republicans is a 2016 nominee who reflects the American melting pot rather than the look of 1950s American sitcoms. From Marco Rubio (Cuban-American) to Bobby Jindal (Indian-American) to Condoleezza Rice (African-American), it is easy for conservatives to believe that a hyphenated-American candidate is all that the GOP needs to right itself with minority voters.
Whether that theory proves correct or not, probably enough Republicans believe it to undermine efforts to forge a bipartisan consensus on immigration reform. If, say, Marco Rubio is going to save the party in 2016, why cast difficult votes in 2013?
Immigration reform is maddeningly complex, and real lives are at stake with the wording of each legislative sentence. This one is about people. Real people. The people who may be cooking your food and caring for your grandmother. And that is why I wish that I could muster more optimism that the election has finally created a bipartisan coalition capable of passing immigration reform.
By Walter Shapiro