“Moderate Republicans are the people who are there when you don’t need them.”
It was one of former congressman Barney Frank’s many devastating zingers, and it certainly applies to the fiasco unfolding in the House on immigration.
A headline last week on Roll Call’s website might have been channeling Frank, the acerbic Massachusetts Democrat: “Moderates Punt on Immigration Petition as GOP Goals Drift.”
Drift indeed. What we saw last week embodied the spirit of capitulation that has allowed a once-great party to move toward the extremism and irrationality represented by President Trump. As recently as 2007, a significant share of the GOP, led by President George W. Bush himself, sought a humane answer to the problem of illegal immigration.
Now, the party of family values is caught up in the forcible separation of children from their parents. Members of the GOP, including House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) , try to rationalize the spectacle of kids torn away from their moms and dads at the border by blaming court decisions or (in Trump’s case) Democrats.
Thus do Republicans compound their inhumanity with a lie. The only reason this is happening is because of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s decision to incarcerate those who enter the country illegally and to take their young children away on the that’ll-teach-’em theory.
Sessions has spoken of this thuggishness with pride. He is, you see, creating a new incentive. “If you don’t want your child separated,” he said last month, “then don’t bring them across the border illegally.” This is cruelty by design.
The Republicans who purport to be above Trumpian nativism briefly threatened to show some spine by taking a stand in defense of immigrants brought to the United States without authorization when they were children. Referred to as “dreamers,” they are functionally American in every way except in their legal status.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) organized what is known as a discharge petition to force votes on a series of immigration bills. One of them was a clean effort to give the dreamers a path to citizenship that was favored to pass if it got a vote.
Every one of the 193 Democrats in the House signed the petition, and so did 23 Republicans. It needed only two more GOP signatures to force action.
And on the cusp of victory, the so-called moderates caved in to Ryan. The last two endorsements would never come.
Their retreat means that Ryan can bring two bills to the floor this week, a hard-line proposal from Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) likely to fail, and a policy mishmash that would achieve many of Trump’s goals — although Trump briefly embarrassed Ryan on Friday by saying he’d veto the so-called compromise before he reversed himself later that afternoon.
While offering a less generous approach to the dreamers’ problem, that second bill would also provide billions for Trump’s “beautiful wall,” a series of new restrictions on legal immigration and tougher rules for asylum seekers.
Its “solution” to the family separation debacle would be to end court-mandated legal protections for children brought across the border so entire families could be jailed together. Now there’s humanity for you.
The moderates claim they could still fall back on their discharge petition strategy. But having flinched once, there’s little reason to believe they won’t balk again.
It gives me no joy to say all this about the GOP’s moderates because my dirty little secret is that I was a teenage liberal Republican — about the most boring thing you can be as an adolescent. My high school yearbook picture is in front of a reelection poster for Sen. Jacob K. Javits, a New York Republican who was one of Congress’s great progressives and counted Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt among his heroes.
Before my teen years were out, I decided that progressive Republicanism had a dim future, which turned out to be true. Javits saw it coming in his book “Order of Battle,” published in the mid-1960s. He warned his party against a “radical right” he described as “the rancorous enemy of the politics of civility that marks the authentic conservative temperament.”
And here we are.
Last week, South Carolina state legislator Katie Arrington ousted stoutly conservative Rep. Mark Sanford in a Republican primary by arguing that he was insufficiently loyal to the president. Arrington proudly declared: “We are the party of President Donald J. Trump.”
She’s right. And those Republicans who still proclaim their allegiance to moderation and civility lack the gumption to do anything about it.