Politics Beats Policy
The president’s friends abandon him on immigration.
Thursday, June 29, 2006
Immigration reform is dead, for now, although it will be months before it is laid to rest. There will be hearings throughout the country later in the summer, where politicians will continue to “debate” the various reform plans—but there is virtually no chance that anything of substance will come from them. The Senate and the House are miles apart on the issue, and rather than move toward compromise, they are taking the illegal immigration show on the road. Immigration reform will live on, not as a serious attempt to solve any problem, but as a piece of cynical political theater.
President Bush learned about the death of his reform initiative at a party last week. The president had put together a little picnic at the White House for Republican congressional leaders. While the banquet tables were being set (ironically enough, with taquitos and Mexican rice), House Speaker Dennis Hastert took the president aside to inform him that he was setting the reform initiative aside—effectively killing it.
“Immigration is this year’s gay marriage. this has turned into a campaign issue.”
Rep. Sam Farr wasn’t at the White House party, but he was not surprised at the turn of events. In a telephone interview from his DC office Tuesday, Farr said the issue had been doomed from the get-go. He said he had seen briefings six or eight months ago detailing Republican plans to turn the immigration debate into a “wedge” issue to polarize the electorate.
“Immigration is this year’s gay marriage,” Farr said. “Everyone in Washington knows this has turned into a political campaign issue. It’s not about finding any solution.”
This isn’t about policy, it’s about politics. Immigration reform isn’t dying on its merits and it isn’t being killed because it’s a bad idea. It is dying because the Republican-controlled Congress is too concerned with mid-term elections to care about solving a pressing national problem.
By refusing to solve the problem, the House Republicans keep a hot-button issue alive. Congressional candidates will be able to attack their opponents by playing on fears of the illegal immigrant hordes, and liberals’ plans to give the “aliens” amnesty. They will use the divide-and-conquer tactic that Karl Rove has executed to great advantage for his party, and at great cost to the nation. It’s a telling coincidence that, as the House Republicans dropped the ball on immigration reform, their colleagues in the Senate were engaged in a cynical “debate” over an anti-flag-burning amendment to the Constitution.
“The president might have hoped that the House Republicans would come to their senses,” Farr said Tuesday. “But they got upset thinking that their message, which is an anti-immigrant message, would get stepped on.”
While it’s possible to blame the defeat of Bush’s initiative on the ruthless political gamesmanship in the House, Farr says the president owns the failure himself.
“The real issue here is leadership,” Farr said. “As much as he has talked about this being a key issue, [Pres. Bush] has never been willing to take on his base of supporters on it.
“He could have gone out and brought the issue to the people. He could have brought the opposing sides together and made them hammer out a deal. That’s leadership—when you can do that.”
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There was a chance, until last week, that ruthless politics might have aided the cause of immigration reform. Regardless of their true sentiments toward the issue, some Republicans might have harbored hopes that a Bush victory on immigration reform would bring a new generation of Latino voters to their party. If they did, they were overrun by their own right wing.
Farr says that this spring, when a million people marched in the streets, he heard his Republican colleagues remark that most of the protesters were probably not registered voters.
“They don’t think the Latino vote exists,” Farr said. “And they do know the White vote exists, and that the White vote is angry. And that’s what this is about.”
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The Rovean plan may backfire yet. In a closely-watched primary election in heavily Republican Utah County, Utah on Tuesday, the anti-immigration weapon failed. Congressman Chris Cannon faced a challenger, John Jacob, who attacked Cannon’s moderate views on immigration reform. In fact, the whole race was fought over this one issue, with Jacob relentlessly attacking Cannon as an appeaser of the alien hordes. Pundits nationwide declared it a referendum on the issue.
The vote looked close until the end—but Cannon hung on to win strong. Maybe it was a victory for moderation and common sense over politics designed to divide. And perhaps it fortells a time when immigration reform will be discussed on its merits.