On Immigration, What Are the Republicans Thinking?

On Immigration, What Are the Republicans Thinking?
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The GOP has announced that it will pursue an immigration reform bill later this year. This surprised most observers, including, initially, this author. Reform had stalled, and largely faded from the public’s consciousness amid the Obamacare debacle. After a year where very little went right for the Democratic Party, the GOP seems to be positioning itself to hand the president a major policy victory, potentially inflaming the Republican base.

This is puzzling. My initial reaction was that the GOP leadership is playing some sort of three-dimensional chess, or else it is completely clueless. Most other commentators seem similarly baffled. Talking Points Memo summed it up as follows: “Civil War Cometh: GOP Prepares for Explosive Immigration Debate.”

Why would the party entertain a civil war when everything seems to be going well for it? After giving this quite a lot of thought, and hearing some good ideas on Twitter, I think I have a decent handle on the various theories for House Republicans’ strategy. Some are more persuasive than others.

1) They are worried about the Hispanic vote.

While I’m personally unopposed to something along the lines of even the Senate’s bill, I’ve previously expressed skepticism that the GOP needs to pass immigration legislation to perform better among Hispanics. In fact, I’ve written thousands of words expressing skepticism that the GOP needs to perform much better among Hispanics at all to win elections (e.g., here, here, here, here). None of this means that it shouldn’t go after Hispanic (or African-American) voters. It just means that there are multiple paths to the majority, and multiple paths to the Hispanic vote itself.

The Republican leadership seems very much concerned with the Hispanic vote, especially as it relates to 2016. Moreover, it seems convinced that passing a reform bill is a good first step toward repairing relations with this constituency.

Note, however, the key qualifier there about 2016. The Hispanic vote is unlikely to affect the outcome in 2014 substantially. Here is a complete list of states with both a Hispanic population in excess of 10 percent and a race that is rated as Leans Democrat, Tossup, or Leans Republican by any of the major race raters that have predictions up: Colorado.

The likely Republican Senate nominee there, Ken Buck, is staunchly opposed to reform. He will probably be sharing a ticket with, well, Tom Tancredo. Passage of the bill is unlikely to help him.

 As for the House, only 40 Republicans represent districts that are 20 percent Hispanic or more, and only a handful of those are thought to be competitive. So 2014 isn’t really the issue.

Now, there’s no time like the present to get going for 2016. But the smarter play for Republicans here seems to be to wait until 2015 to act on a bill. After all, Republican chances for taking the Senate this year are very good if the dynamic doesn’t change. So if they can effectively lay low between now and Election Day and somehow avoid angering Independents or inflaming divisions between establishment and insurgent Republicans, they would have much greater influence over the direction of the bill in the second half of Obama’s term.

2) The Chamber of Commerce wants it.

This theory is very popular, especially among Tea Party sorts and advocates of “libertarian populism.” The idea is that business groups in the Republican coalition very badly want the cheap labor associated with reform, and are threatening to sit out the election if the Republicans don’t move.

There’s no doubt that the business wing of the party has been pushing for legislation, and that makes this theory very popular. But think it through for a moment. The Chamber of Commerce has wanted legislation for a very, very long time. A bill passed the Senate last summer. If the GOP was going to pass that measure to appease its corporate supporters, the smart play again would have been to get it over with early on.

Moreover, in a cost-benefit analysis, does the chamber necessarily win out over the base? Here’s where the party stands right now, without a dime chipped in from the chamber: Of the nine generic ballot polls taken this year, the GOP leads in six of them. (The other three were all taken by the same company: Rasmussen Reports.) The party’s preferred candidate has led or tied the Democrat in the most recent Senate polls taken in Louisiana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Michigan, Montana, West Virginia, and Arkansas. The preferred candidate is presumed to be ahead in South Dakota.

That’s eight Senate seats where the GOP is leading at this point, and it is surprisingly competitive in two more: Colorado and Iowa. Alaska is an unknown, but Democrat Mark Begich won by only a point against a senator who had been convicted of a felony a few weeks prior to the election in 2008. That makes 11 seats where the GOP is in solid shape already.

So while this option is appealing, you have to ask yourself: What does the party really gain from this, and why wait until now?

3) It’s a trap for Democrats.

Salon’s Brian Beutler posits that the GOP is actually trying to ignite a civil war on the Democratic side. He notes that Republicans plan on discarding the pathway to citizenship in favor of a pathway to legalization (as the House’s just-issued outline of principles stipulated). In other words, illegal immigrants wouldn’t become citizens, but they wouldn’t be in danger of deportation anymore. He further reports (via Twitter) that Republicans are threatening to refuse to allow any House bill to go to conference, forcing the Senate to either take it or leave it. Beutler writes:

Obviously it would be a major negotiating failure for reformers to entertain an idea like this publicly. And it would be a genuinely unjust outcome in the sense that the 11 million would be treated secondarily to the rest of their fellow taxpayers under the law. And it would be a sub-optimal political outcome for the Democrats’ demographic politics. . . . For all these reasons, reformers have typically refused to go there.

Beutler continues:

But in human terms, would actual immigrants (and their citizen children) prefer no bill at all to a bill that at least lets them work and live freely in the U.S. in perpetuity? Particularly if they could turn right around and begin organizing for a fight over the singular issue of guaranteed citizenship in 2016 and beyond?

That’s the problem a House bill would present for Democrats. For many illegal immigrants, citizenship has never been the goal. Being able to come out of the shadows, or to have family members come out of the shadows, is what it has always been about. Democrats might kill the bill, but they would be in a very uncomfortable position doing so.

But this gets us back to our earlier concerns: Why now, and why at all? This might have made sense last summer, when things were looking much dicier for the GOP. Instead, they’re moving forward 10 months before the election? And what if the Democrats opt to “take it”? The base knows that fights over citizenship will follow, and many believe that the GOP will eventually cave on that as well. It’s a recipe for disaster.

4)  This is a PR push 

                Another option, related to No. 3, is that this is mostly a public relations push for Republicans. The idea would be that they would pass something with some sort of  “poison pill” in it that Democrats wouldn’t swallow. This would allow them to push back on the “Party of No” meme before the election.  Moreover, this would give them something to advertise for 2016 as akin to the official Republican position for 2017. 

                I think this is getting close, and at least has an element of truth about it. But you still encounter the problem that Democrats might decide there’s no such thing as a poison pill here, within reason, and figure that they can fix any further issues with the immigration system further down the line, and call Republicans’ bluff by passing whatever comes out of the House.  This is, after all, what Democrats basically did with Medicare Part D: The bill passed, and they fixed a lot of what they didn’t like with it via Obamacare. Such an outcome actually might be the best thing for Democrats: Passing an immigration bill while still flogging Republicans over what they will call the creation of a group of second-class citizens.  Moreover, the conservative/libertarian populist wing of the party would still be encouraged to sit the election out. 

5) Republicans are afraid of winning.

In the course of my musings on Twitter, AmishDude suggested that the real motive here is that the GOP leadership is actually concerned about the implications of a landslide.  Of all the suggestions put out there, this seems to make the most sense, and synthesizes the above theories reasonably well while addressing most of my pushbacks on them.

The idea is twofold. First, a landslide would present as much of a problem as it does an opportunity for those who might want to revisit the issue in 2015, especially if the GOP establishment (or its donors) believes this is a must-do before the 2016 elections.  The base would be even more agitated after a big victory, and appalled at any compromise on this issue if the GOP picks it up in 2015.  In addition, absent a majority, Democrats wouldn’t have the same incentive to support a bill that contained further compromises, especially since they already view the bill as a compromise in the first place. They’d be better off watching Republicans flail and fail to pass a bill as their own base abandons them; this is roughly what happened in the mid-2000s.

This makes sense of the timing issue.  Perhaps the GOP really did plan on letting the issue die last summer, when taking the Senate looked like a 50-50 shot, and breaking even in the House seemed like the order of the day. But then the Obamacare rollout hit, and suddenly Republicans looked like they might enjoy a 2010 redux.

If that’s the setup, then Beutler’s observation in No. 3 also makes sense.  If a fight is inevitable, have it now rather than a much messier one in 2015.  Maybe the Senate Democrats won’t be able to swallow a bill with tougher enforcement provisions and without a path to citizenship, and they will own part of the death of immigration reform.  Or maybe they’ll pass it, and the issue will be partly cleared off the table for an election year. For an establishment Republican, that’s win-win.

But I think it there’s another, broader factor involved. When you get past the top tier of recruits -- the Mike Rounds and Shelley Capitos of the world -- and get into the more marginal seats that could fall for Democrats in a wave election, you start to get into candidates like Ken Buck. People have almost written Buck off, but I haven’t; while I think there are smarter choices for the Colorado GOP, he barely lost in 2010, and conditions for Democrats are no better right now than they were in 2010. There’s a similar crop of candidates in second-tier House races.  The last thing the leadership wants is another crop of Ted Cruzes and Rand Pauls in the Senate, nor does it want another dozen Tea Partiers in the House.

This isn’t to suggest that the GOP leadership is affirmatively doing this to minimize Republican gains. What I am saying is that they are closer to neutral about big gains than we might think, given the problems that the surge in base enthusiasm caused for them after the 2010 elections. So if they check agenda items like this off the list now and still get a landslide, great.  But if they end up cooling off the base’s enthusiasm and get a narrow, establishment-based Senate majority and keep the House, well, that’s not the end of the world either.  In fact, it would mean a more docile caucus in both Houses, which is good for those who run those Houses. 

Now, this assumes that the base doesn’t get riled up and defeats establishment-friendly Senate candidates in primaries in places like North Carolina, Louisiana, or Alaska, or toss out a crop of vulnerable incumbents throughout the South. Tea Partiers might even run third party candidates in some of these races. Perhaps the leadership thinks it can avoid this by placing the votes after primary season is over, though I’m skeptical.

Of course, it could still be (1) or (2), some combination of all five, something that grew out of internal polling we haven’t seen, or some other strategic move altogether.  But based on the evidence we have, (5) strikes me as the most plausible reason for the GOP’s moves.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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