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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Here’s Where the Tea Party’s Power Comes From

Sam Stein and Ryan Grimm have a great article at the Huffington Post that gives the behind-the-scenes of the shutdown and debt ceiling fights. It begins with how President Obama and Harry Reid mended their relationship and decided over the summer that they were going to play hardball. Obamacare wouldn’t be touched and they wouldn’t negotiate over a government shutdown or the debt ceiling. The piece then walks through how the negotiations unfolded and Reid and McConnell eventually came to their deal.

But there’s one minor part that exemplifies why the Tea Party has so much power in the Republican Party. Here it is:

The speaker was juggling the demands of multiple factions. His moderate members had been complaining in private that the standoff was crushing them. But they hadn’t bolted, much to the delight of the conservative wing. “At one point,” a senior House GOP aide said of one caucus meeting, “Michele Bachmann stood up and thanked the moderates for standing with us.”

Remember when the moderates were fed up with the Tea Party and ready to revolt? That fizzled very quickly. We’re not talking about the mainstream conservatives here. Instead, it’s Peter King and the 20-30 other House GOPers who could have joined up with House Democrats at any time and brought an end to the shutdown. These are the members that the Tea Party is most worried about, because they can reduce the Tea Party’s power by siding with House Dems.

But this never happened. The moderates refused to betray the Tea Party, despite repeated threats. Why? It’s not entirely clear. Maybe they fear a primary challenge. Maybe they have a deep belief in caucus unity. Whatever the reason, Boehner was rightly more afraid that the Tea Party would break off and declare war on the Republican Party than the moderates would. If the moderates were willing to commit electoral suicide by starting an intra-party civil war, they would have the power to dictate the House strategy to Boehner. Time and time again we’ve seen that’s not the case. The moderates won’t wage war against the establishment. The Tea Party, on the other hand, is more than willing to do so. If they break off from the Republican Party, it will have grave electoral effects on both. Neither would survive. But the Tea Party either isn’t considering the consequences or don’t care about them. The same dynamic exists with moderate Republicans, but they care about the consequences. The Tea Party’s blind recklessness is what gives it its true power.

Were Mainstream Conservatives To Blame for the Shutdown?

The post-mortem of the McConnell-Reid deal to open the government and avoid a default has focused a lot on who is to blame on the Republican side. Many have laid the blame at Speaker Boehner’s feet – something I have pushed back against a number of times. House Republicans blame Senate Republicans. Senate Republicans blame Ted Cruz and Co. The Tea Party blames the establishment. The Washington Post’s Jonathan Bernstein has narrowed it down more, specifically focusing on mainstream House Republicans:

There’s plenty of blame to go around for the shutdown and debt-limit fiasco, but any account which focuses mainly on Boehner is probably letting both the moderates and the mainstream conservatives — in other words, most House Republicans — off far too easy.

Bernstein has named this group the ‘Fraidy Cat Conference:

These 175, too, are mostly paranoid about renomination, even if they want reporters to know that they’re not actually nuts. They’re the ones who drive what Boehner does. They’re the ones who have to bear the brunt of the responsibility for this shutdown. They’re the ones who are the ‘fraidy cat conference — so paranoid about renomination, and more broadly about allowing any distance to appear between themselves and the “conservatives” who they probably honestly have contempt for, that they’re willing to run their party right into a ditch.

The problem with this argument is that the ‘fraidy cat conference is right to be afraid. They have seen the power of the Tea Party and how tough primaries can be. They’re right to be paranoid about renomination.

This gets to a larger problem with diagnosing who is to blame for the shutdown. It’s important to look at the incentive structure for all of the actors involved.

Mainstream conservatives – the ‘fraidy cats – have an incentive to put as little distance as possible between themselves and the right wingers. Many are part of the “hope yes/vote no” conference that is glad the shutdown is over with and a clean CR passed, but couldn’t vote for the legislation themselves for fear of conservative blowback. I imagine that for many, this was an easy decision. Stick with the Tea Party through and through.

Like Boehner, these members had the power to end the shutdown anytime they wanted. Like Boehner, they had both individual and group incentives to keep the shutdown going until the 11th hour. Supporting the shutdown reduced the chances that these mainstream conservatives would face a primary challenge while also keeping the party unified. This point cannot be repeated enough: the GOP cannot allow a civil war to break out between the establishment and the Tea Party. It must do everything in its power to avoid that.

The reason that Boehner and the mainstream conservatives are incentivized towards making extreme demands and shutting down the government is because the Tea Party sets those incentives. The far-right members are the ones willing to jump ship from the Republican Party and commit political suicide. In doing so, they would take the Republican Party down with them. That gives them the power to set the framework of the House Republican strategy. If the Tea Party wants to fight, then Boehner and mainstream conservatives must listen. They have every incentive to do so. These are rational decisions.

The Tea Party is being irrational. They chose a strategy guaranteed to fail, forced their fellow Republicans to use those futile tactics, and caused needless suffering and economic harm. Their incentives are shaped not by outside forces, but by themselves. Yet, they decided on this radical plan to shut down the government if the president did not make drastic alterations to his greatest legislative achievement. It was bound to fail and blow up in their face. Yet, the Tea Party irrationally chose to take this route anyways.

Ultimately, they are the ones to blame.