E.J. Dionne Jr.: The GOP’s long trek back toward the center

February 2

The botched rollout of the health-care law has called forth some good news: Republicans are so confident they can ride anti-Obamacare sentiment to electoral victory that they’re growing ever-more impatient with the tea party’s fanaticism. Immigration reform may be the result.

The GOP is looking like a person emerging from a long binge and asking, “Why did I do that?” The moment of realization came when last fall’s government shutdown cratered the party’s polling numbers. Staring into the abyss can be instructive. For the first time since 2010, the middle of the House Republican caucus — roughly 100 of its 233 members — began worrying less about primaries from right-wing foes and more about losing their majority status altogether.

Obamacare’s troubles reinforced the flight from the brink. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is telling his rank-and-file that they can win the 2014 elections simply by avoiding the stupid mistakes their more-ferocious colleagues keep urging them to make. In this view, the health insurance issue will take care of everything, provided Republicans end their tea party fling.

In fact, it’s an illusion for the GOP to think that bashing Obamacare is an elixir, especially if Democrats embrace and defend the law. Now that its benefits are fully kicking in, Republicans should be asked persistently, “Who do you want to throw off health insurance?”

Also: Do you want to go back to denying people coverage for preexisting conditions? And: What about those 3 million young adults now on their parents’ health plans? “Repeal Obamacare” is not as popular as it seems in GOP bastions. Some Republicans know this, which is why they are trying to cobble together much narrower alternatives to the law.

Nonetheless, some illusions are useful. Boehner is using them aggressively. The immigration principles he announced at his caucus’s retreat last week in Cambridge, Md., are a breakthrough because they are potentially more elastic than they sound. This is why many immigration reform advocates were elated, and why President Obama, sensing what was coming, offered not a hint of partisanship on the issue in his State of the Union address.

The principles have been loosely described as favoring the legalization of undocumented immigrants without a path to citizenship. But what the statement actually opposes is a “special path to citizenship” for the roughly 11 million who are here illegally. Everything hangs on the implications of that word “special.”

A bill barring a path to citizenship would be a nonstarter for Democrats — and it ought to be a nonstarter for Republicans and conservatives. Creating a vast population of legal residents who lack citizenship rights undercuts the rights of those who are already citizens. It would undermine the commitment of a democratic republic to equal treatment and self-rule.

But reform advocates inside and outside the Obama administration note that even without a “special” path, many immigrants, once legalized, could find ways of gaining citizenship eventually.

Changes in visa allocations, including more generous rules for the spouses and parents of citizens, could help as many as 4 million undocumented residents, as The Post’s Pamela Constable has reported. Republicans have already signaled openness to a path for “dreamers” — their numbers are estimated at between 800,000 and 1.5 million — who were brought to the United States illegally as children. The bill already passed by the Senate would put as many as 8 million people on a path to citizenship. A compromise that found “non-special” ways of reaching a number reasonably close to the Senate’s is now at least possible.

It’s also possible, of course, that Boehner could make a play to improve his party’s image with Latinos by appearing to be flexible at the outset but in the end appease hard-liners by balking on a final bill — and try to blame Democrats for not compromising enough.Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) warned on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday that passage of a bill was “clearly in doubt.”

But the GOP consists of more than the tea party. Both business interests and conservative evangelical leaders really want a reform law. Most of the intra-party tiffs have been over tactics: whether to use shutdowns or debt-ceiling fights to achieve shared objectives. The immigration battle, by contrast, will expose more fundamental rifts among party constituencies along philosophical lines.

None of this heralds the dawn of a new Moderate Republican Age. Shifts in the Republican primary electorate and the tea party insurgency dragged the party so far to the right that it will take a long time to bring it within hailing distance of the middle of the road. But change has to start somewhere, and the GOP’s slow retreat from the fever swamps may turn out to be one of Obamacare’s utterly unintended effects.

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