Barack Obama and John McCain are going at it over immigration reform. On the list of all the things the pundits got wrong about the 2008 presidential race, immigration reform will rank high. It was supposed to be a central issue in the Republican race. It never was. It was supposed to kill McCain’s candidacy. It didn’t.
McCain, during the primary and even today, has walked a tightrope: expressing a recognition of the political reality that his party and the country want to see border control first, but vowing that ultimately we will have to deal in a responsible way with the illegal immigrants who do not through “attrition by enforcement” disappear from the country on their own. Obama by and large played the Democratic party line through the primaries — expressing skepticism over a border fence, excoriating the Republicans for anti-immigrant sentiments, voting with organized labor to help kill off immigration reform (some enterprising reporter should ask Ted Kennedy about that one) and avoiding obvious gaffes (although his answer on drivers licenses for illegal immigrants was as convoluted as Hillary Clinton’s).
Will this issue be any more salient in the general election than it was in the primaries? It is hard to see how, unless McCain can convert this into another issue in which he can claim to have done heavy lifting despite political risks while Obama hid in the weeds. The problem here however is obvious: the more McCain talks about his political heresy, the more he highlights a key point of disagreement with his base, which is has barely forgotten their outrage over his efforts on comprehensive immigration reform.
So the bottom line: I expect to hear even less about this issue in the general election than in the primaries. And once again, whoever wins the White House will have absolutely no mandate on an issue which has significant national security and economic implications and, for better or worse, arouses enormous political passion.