The approval by the Senate yesterday of the immigration reform bill is, as most observers are rightly noting, less a victory for its advocates than a prelude to a defeat. After struggling mightily to garner 68 votes in the Senate, the gang of eight must come to grips with the fact that only 15 Republicans (including four of the original sponsors) voted for the bill. Though the yes votes, comprising more than two-thirds of the Senate, represented an impressive bipartisan coalition the prospects of passage in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives are slim if not entirely non-existent. The ability of anti-reform forces to rally much of the GOP grass roots to oppose the reform proposal as “amnesty” or a fraudulent attempt to bolster border security has entirely intimidated the House leadership and much of the party. Though some supporters of the idea, such as Rep. Paul Ryan, are vowing to bring forward a version of reform that might conceivably be meshed with the Senate bill in a conference, passage of any compromise that might conceivably satisfy either party seems unlikely.
The defeat of immigration reform will, if it happens, set off a new round of public soul searching and blame-assigning on the part of Republicans and their critics. The end of this attempt, which many thought might address the GOP’s growing problems with the fastest growing sector of voters—Hispanics—will be seen by some as a dismal follow-up to last November’s electoral debacle. By contrast, some conservatives will act as if the entire problem is a figment of the imagination of the dreaded party establishment. But I think too much of the discussion about this issue has centered on the implications of whether it will help Republicans win elections and not enough effort has been made to place it in historical perspective. Though we have treated this debate as if it were an entirely new issue in American politics whose only antecedent is the 1986 bill that is widely regarded as a failure, arguments about immigration stretch back through American history. The problem for Republicans then is not so much what Hispanics (many of whom are not likely to embrace the GOP anytime soon no matter what it does) think of them as it is what history will say about their apparent decision to squander an opportunity to fix a problem in a way that might accrue to their advantage as well as to align themselves with anti-immigration sentiments that have not exactly aided those who espoused them in the past.
The prospect of consigning the gang of eight’s bill to the dustbin of history has led many on the right to use the occasion of the Senate vote to start crowing about their effective veto on any measure that might fix our broken immigration system. They are feeling cocky about the way they have buffaloed much of Congress into branding what was a reasonable compromise as being the embodiment of everything conservatives are supposed to hate. This is in spite of the fact that it combined the most serious attempt to deal with border security with a scheme that would have eventually brought 11 million illegal immigrants out of the shadows. I have yet to hear a coherent response to the question of what conservative principle was at stake in preventing either of these outcomes. But what I have heard from many opponents of the bill is something that is far more troubling than mere disagreement.
If Congress fails to deal with immigration reform in this session it may not, as some have said, necessarily doom the Republican Party to defeats in future elections. Nor need it end the presidential hopes of Senator Marco Rubio, who is being unfairly branded a RINO by the bill’s foes. As John Podhoretz wrote this morning, three years is a lifetime in politics and anything can happen that might boost Rubio to the GOP nomination or to sink the Democrats in 2016. But anyone who thinks the tenor of this debate has not materially affected the ability of the Republican Party to appeal to Hispanics simply hasn’t been paying attention. With so many on the right acting as if their goal was not so much to turn the border with Mexico into the Great Wall of China (something that the Corker-Hoeven amendment to the gang’s bill might well have come close to achieving) but to demonstrate their antipathy for legal immigration and to make sure that those who are here without permission are treated as pariahs rather than offered, as most Americans rightly support, a chance to have their status legalized.
This is a disaster not so much because it alienates Hispanics as because it consigns what appears to be the majority of the House GOP caucus to being remembered as the latest iteration of the Know Nothing tradition of American history. Opponents of the bill will claim this is a slander, but as Peter Wehner rightly noted yesterday, the change in Republican rhetoric about immigration from the open-minded and optimistic tone of Ronald Reagan to the sort of thing we are hearing from the netroots these days should discourage any thinking conservative.
There is still time for the GOP to think twice about killing reform. It is possible for Republicans to pass a bill that does all the things the Senate bill might achieve even if it reverses the order and prioritizes security. But having painted themselves into a rhetorical corner on the issue, it’s not clear that those who have demagogued the issue have the ability to do it. At this point, alienated Hispanics may not care much what Republicans do on the issue the rest of the year, but history will not ignore the opportunity wasted or the unnecessary enemies made by those who may bring about this result.