January 29, 2013

Immigration reform has a fighting chance — mainly because opposition to it is symbolic, which means that there’s a chance it won’t be mobilized.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Charles Schumer(D-N.Y.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

After yesterday’s bipartisan roll-out of a Senate immigration framework, it’s not surprising that today there’s been some pundit backlash, with good items from Scott Bland, Ed Kilgore, and others making the point that we’re a long way from a White House signing ceremony. Philip Klein had a particularly smart argument for the problems that immigration reform should have:

Whether or not lawmakers are earnest about wanting to resolve the issue, politically, all sides could live with doing nothing. Democrats would still be able to use it as a wedge issue and Obama could argue he really tried on immigration this time, but Republicans were simply intransigent. Conservative House members could go back to their districts and say they successfully blocked amnesty. Republicans like Rubio could argue that they really wanted immigration reform to happen, but Obama was simply unwilling to compromise to get it across the finish line. As long as all sides have fall back positions in the event that nothing gets passed, it’s hard to see how this survives the legislative meat grinder.

And meanwhile, Harry Enten reminds us that Republicans shouldn’t expect major gains among Latino voters should reform succeed.

Perhaps. But I’ll push back a little against the pushback.

The thing about Republican opposition to immigration reform (as with so many GOP positions on everything from marriage to the debt limit) is that it’s almost entirely symbolic. That doesn’t mean opposition isn’t real — symbolic issues can be very important to people — but it does mean that it’s almost certainly a lot easier for a unified party leadership to very significantly reduce the level of concern among rank-and-file voters. Or, at least, concern activated enough to put constraints on politicians.

It’s also worth remembering that there’s always been considerable Republican support for immigration reform, among employers, that’s based on very specific and concrete economic interests.

So if a unified party leadership (both inside and outside of Congress) has decided that the GOP is better off getting this issue out of the way by passing something, then there’s a very good chance that outright opposition will be relatively minor. What remains would hardly be trivial — there are quite a few very difficult details that will need to be worked out or successfully papered over, and even if everyone wants a bill and agrees on a framework, there’s no guarantee they can get that part done. But the chances would be very good.

Now, you may have noticed that I twice glided right by something about a unified Republican Party. The real problem here is that in the past, quite a few Republicans have found it quite lucrative (in terms of votes, attention, ratings or whatever it is they’re after) to play up nativist feelings. That’s almost still true today. What’s different — perhaps — is that party leaders have decided that it’s in their collective interest to pass a bill.

Thus there are two big questions going forward, at least beyond the questions about the inherent difficulty of complex legislation. The first one is whether Republican leaders really have bought the idea that getting immigration off the table would be a significant plus for the party going forward. And the second is, if they attempt to get it done, whether they can dissuade or minimize rogue politicians and other loud voices who are tempted to take advantage of the situation.

So far, and tentatively, it appears that the answers to both of those questions are coming down on the side of successful reform. Granted, it’s early. And Klein is exactly right: even if everyone wants a bill, none of the key players needs to have a bill. So collapse is clearly a possibility. But so far, I’d have to say that immigration reform appears to be not doomed. And that’s a pretty good start.