What if Ted Cruz is right (on immigration)?

February 21, 2013

At a speech in Dallas Wednesday, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz assessed the prospects for some sort of comprehensive immigration reform bill passing Congress this year.


Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. AP photo.

Here's (in part) what he said:

"I don’t believe President Obama wants an immigration bill to pass, instead I think he wants a political issue. His objective is to push so much on the table that he forces Republicans [to] walk away from the table because then he wants to use that issue in 2014 and 2016 as a divisive wedge issue.”

Cruz's criticism centers on Obama's insistence on the need for a path to citizenship for undocumented workers to be included in any legislation -- a proposal that he says is directed at "scuttling" the bill.

Putting aside Cruz's policy critique, which has and will continue to be litigated out inside and outside of Congress, it's an interesting thought experiment to wonder what would happen if the Texas Republican is right about Obama's intentions regarding immigration.

To be clear, we have no reason to think the president is up to some sort of grand Machiavellian scheme to destroy Republicans' chances with Hispanics in the medium and long term at the expense of passing a reform of the nation's immigration system this year. But, what if that's the end result of all of this back and forth on immigration?

If comprehensive immigration reform appears to be withering on the vine in the next few months -- whether due to policy disagreements or, in Cruz's formulation, due to Obama's grander political strategy -- Republicans will be left with two unappealing options.

1. Cut a deal no matter what.  While including a path to citizenship in a broader immigration bill would complicate the politics for almost every Republican member, the party could decide that they need to get the immigration reform debate behind them in order to preserve their chances of political viability among the rapidly growing Hispanic community.  Such a move would exacerbate the already-apparent divide between the party's base and its establishment on immigration and likely cost at least a few House Members or even a Senator their seats in primary fights next year.

2. Walk away. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, one of a handful of Senators who have been working on bipartisan legislation on immigration, has already floated the possibility of walking away from the negotiating table if the terms of a deal aren't acceptable. The political risks of leaving the issue unresolved are significant for a party that won just one in four Hispanic voters in 2012.  If the negotiations broke off permanently, Republicans would have to quickly embark on a public relations campaign blaming Obama for making unreasonable demands and playing politics with the issue. (And, yes, that sound a lot like what Cruz is doing right now.)  Winning a message battle on immigration could be complicated by some of the louder voices -- Iowa Rep. Steve King, for example -- who are long time opponents of any sort of immigration compromise.

Neither option is anywhere close to ideal for Republicans, and it's the underlying reason why Rubio, broadly considered to be the frontrunner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, is putting so much on the line to find a way to a deal.

Rubio -- and other smart party strategists -- know that if a deal can't be reached on immigration, Republicans' chances of winning the White House in 2016 decrease. (You can argue whether the GOP's odds would be heavily or lightly impacted in a negative way by a failure on immigration reform but it's impossible to argue that it would help them in three years time.)

Given the stakes, Republicans -- Cruz included -- had better hope that Obama's eye is more on building his legacy than on positioning his party politically for when he leaves office. Otherwise, the GOP could be faced with nothing but bad choices on the issue heading into the 2014 midterms and 2016 presidential election.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan | February 21, 2013