The Politics of Immigration Reform

With the government shutdown and debt ceiling brinksmanship behind us, attention in Washington has turned back to comprehensive immigration reform, another politically toxic subject for Republicans. The question is whether reform actually has a chance. As many have noted, if John Boehner wants to pass an immigration bill, he has the ability to do so. He can put a bill on the floor that would pass with mostly Democratic votes.

That’s been true with almost every issue though. The real question is whether the incentive structure is right for Boehner to defy the right wing of his party. Examining the situation through that framework, the answer is almost certainly “No.”

As I’ve written before, the Tea Party has control over Boehner and mainstream Republicans, because they are willing to commit electoral suicide and drag the Republican establishment down with them by creating a GOP civil war. Moderate conservatives are not willing to do that. As long as the Tea Party is willing to break away from the rest of the party, Boehner must adhere to their wishes. The only exception to that rule is if the Tea Party becomes so extreme that it ensures the GOP will lose its House majority. Thanks to gerrymandering, it’s near impossible for Democrats to have much of a chance of taking back the House. The Tea Party basically cannot become so extreme as to put the House in jeopardy. That means the greatest threat to the Republican House majority is an intra-party civil war. The Tea Party is willing to cause that. The establishment isn’t. That recklessness gives the Tea Party its power.

This dynamic existed during the government shutdown and debt ceiling fights and it exists now with immigration reform. The only hope is that Democrats and the Tea Party find some common ground that is acceptable to both. Unfortunately, no such common ground exists. There is no policy acceptable to one that is acceptable to the other.

Many pundits have made a lot of what Boehner said yesterday. “I still think immigration reform is an important subject that needs to be addressed,” he said. “And I’m hopeful.” There is movement within the party as well to push for immigration reform (Darrell Issa and Mario Diaz-Balart are drafting legislation).

But this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Of course, Boehner thinks “immigration reform is an important subject.” It would be insane for him to dismiss it out of hand. Entertaining the topic and dragging it out lessens the political damage when the Tea Party eventually forces him to kill it. What would he accomplish by killing it now?

There is always the chance that the Tea Party realizes how much political damage it is causing. Maybe Cruz & Co. will decide that immigration reform is necessary. I’m highly skeptical of that, but if they do have a change of heart, then immigration reform becomes a real possibility. But none of this changes the political framework that exists right now in the Republican party. The right-wingers have control and Boehner is doing his best to keep his caucus unified. If the Tea Party doesn’t want immigration reform, then we’re not getting immigration reform.

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Take a Bow, Mr. Speaker

Speaker John Boehner
Speaker John Boehner

Last night, Congress passed the McConnell-Reid plan to reopen the government and avoid a default. It also includes an income verification requirement for Obamacare and sets up a bicameral committee that will attempt to come to a large budget deal by December 13th. In return for a 16 day government shutdown and debt ceiling brinksmanship, Republicans received a cosmetic change in Obamacare that does nothing substantial.

It’s easy to look at that and lament the wasted time and needless suffering that was caused by it. It’s easy to wish that John Boehner had decided on September 30th to break the Hastert Rule and pass a clean continuing resolution and clean debt ceiling increase. It’s easy to look for blame and settle on the speaker. But it’s wrong.

It’s wrong, because it ignores the internal political dynamics that exists in the Republican House conference and it holds Boehner to a standard that no politician should be held to. If Boehner had brought to the floor a clean CR and clean debt ceiling bill, he would’ve faced a revolt amongst his members. They would’ve lambasted him in the media and challenged his speakership. It would’ve been ugly.

But it wouldn’t end there. It would have created a deep fissure in the GOP. Anyone who voted for those bills would’ve faced a primary challenge. It would’ve pitted any conservative in favor of a quick retreat against those wanting to fight. The Tea Party would have gone to war against the establishment. It would eliminate any chance that the House could pass legislation until 2015. It would also put the Republican House majority in jeopardy. Imagine a year of Republican-on-Republican attacks, nasty primaries and voters choosing to stay home. This is what journalists are asking Boehner to do when they ask him to cut the Tea Party loose. They are asking him to tear his party in half.

For Boehner, this was never about defunding Obamacare or extracting policy concessions from the White House. He knew the first was never going to happen and the second was highly unlikely. The White House was looking to end debt-ceiling hostage taking and wasn’t going to negotiate. Boehner wasn’t going to let the U.S. default so he always knew he was going to surrender.

Instead, this was all about party unity. The longer Boehner postponed the day of surrender, the more he could keep his conference unified. The Tea Party can’t survive without the Republican Party and the Republican Party can’t survive without the Tea Party. Over time, the extreme tactics of the Tea Party may disappear as the political and policy consequences of their actions slowly build, but that take elections. It takes establishment candidates defeating Tea Party candidates in primaries. A Republican civil war reduces the power of both. It’s easy to see why liberals would love that outcome – it would give Democrats immense control of the legislative process. But it would be terrible for the Republican party.

This is political dynamic that John Boehner has to deal with. He must lead members that vary widely across the conservative political spectrum, who are overeager to make an impact and are willing to use extreme tactics to get what they want. He must deal with a newly invigorated grassroots base that attempts to undermine and replace him at every turn. And he faces all of this in a time when the speakership has fewer powers than ever before.

The past three weeks were his greatest challenge. He had to build up as much credibility with the Tea Party as he possibly could, knowing he would have no choice but to betray them in the end. That meant listening to them and letting them guide his actions. His strategy was to do whatever the Tea Party wanted. His moderate members were always going to support him and have his back when the debt ceiling vote came. The right-wingers were the ones he had to court.

After the deal last night, the results are in: His strategy was a huge success.

His members gave him a standing ovation during their conference meeting Wednesday – the same meeting where he announced that he was surrendering. One supporter of the #DefundObamacare movement said that Boehner’s speakership is “more secure than ever.” Rep. Raul Labrador, one of the most conservative members of the House, said he’s “really proud of Speaker Boehner.” Another hard-line conservative, Rep. Phil Gingrey, said yesterday “Speaker Boehner’s got more courage in his little finger than most of us do in our entire bodies.” These are the same members who would have challenged his speakership if he attempted to pass a clean CR and clean debt ceiling bill.

This is Boehner’s greatest accomplishment. He kept his party unified in the face of overwhelming odds. The fact that they split on the vote yesterday is meaningless. The Republican House stands as one, even if it doesn’t always vote that way. Anyone who thinks this was an easy feat for the speaker hasn’t been watching the internal dynamics of the Republican conference. John Boehner has the toughest job in politics and he’s performed it masterfully.

Take a bow, Mr. Speaker.

Being Honest with the Tea Party Doesn’t Work

One of the main criticisms of House Republican leaders, particularly Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), the past two weeks is that they lied to the Tea Party about what they could actually accomplish during these fiscal fights. It’s not particularly surprising that Obama isn’t negotiating or that Republicans are being overwhelmingly blamed for the shutdown. The thinking goes that if only Boehner had informed his members at the beginning that they had no chance in these fiscal fights, then it would be easy to cut a deal right now. But why?

What makes anyone think that the Tea Party would be less intransigent if Boehner and Co. hadn’t overpromised at the beginning?

Here’s a counterfactual: On September 28, Boehner holds a meeting with all his members and tells them the truth. President Obama really isn’t going to budge. He’ll allow a government shutdown and may even allow a default if necessary, because he believes these fights are about more than Obamacare. He believes they are about not setting the precedent for the minority party to use the budget and debt ceiling as leverage to extract policy concessions from the majority. Boehner says he doesn’t agree, but that’s the president’s stance and he’s not going to budge. He also tells them that it’s highly likely that Americans will blame Republicans for any shutdown or default and it could potentially risk their House majority in the midterm elections. Boehner even tells them that a default would be catastrophic and they can’t allow it to happen.

How do the Tea Party members react to that? Do they listen, synthesize everything the speaker said and agree to fight another day? Not at all.

That’s because, as Business Insider’s Josh Barro put it, they are living on another planet. Polling doesn’t mean anything. Breaching the debt ceiling wouldn’t be that bad. President Obama caved in 2011 so he’s bound to this time too.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. But these conservative members don’t care. They are on a blind crusade against Obamacare and will do everything in their power to stop it. It doesn’t matter what Boehner tells them. His words affect their mood, not their perception of reality.

If Boehner says that the president will cave and they have a real shot at taking down Obamacare, they cheer and support the speaker. That’s exactly what they want to hear.

If he tells them the truth like I outlined above, they sit in silence and find ways to undermine him. They simply won’t believe what the speaker says.

Being honest with these conservative members doesn’t work, because they simply don’t believe it.

Some journalists think that Boehner raised their expectations over these fiscal fights and that the intense Tea Party opposition is a result of their expectations not being met. But the Tea Party expected to stop Obamacare, no matter what the speaker said. Boehner just convinced them that he believed that they could stop Obamacare. That may have stoked their enthusiasm, but it didn’t change their expectations or their willingness to do anything to stop the law.

From Boehner’s perspective, this lie kept his party unified for a little bit longer while he searched for any way out. The Tea Party was always going to be furious by whatever deal he cuts, because it won’t substantially undermine Obamacare. If he had told them that at the beginning, he would’ve immediately split his party in half and put himself in an even worse negotiating position. Lying to them kept his members united and gave him time to work out a deal. It didn’t stoke their anger or increase their opposition to the eventual deal. That was coming no matter what.