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.

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.

“Go Out There and Win an Election”

Those were the words President Obama directed towards the Republican Party today as he further emphasized that this was the end of debt-ceiling hostage-taking. If the Republican Party doesn’t like the president or his policies, it should take its message to the American people and win elections. It’s a simple argument and it also applies to moderate Republicans. If they want to take back their party, win elections. Defeat Tea Party candidates in primaries.

Liberals are hopeful that this complete and utter defeat of the Republican Party in the debt-ceiling battle will lead to a change of GOP strategy. The theory goes that the Tea Party will see that its extreme tactics don’t work and will look for more practical methods to fight the president. This is highly unlikely to happen.

Boehner did an excellent job keeping his members unified, but grassroots organizations around the country have had about enough. Molly Ball has a great story today about how many conservative activists are ready to leave the GOP and want to primary every Republican who voted for the bill. Their belief is that Republican tactics didn’t fail, their leadership did. For the moment, there’s a gap between the opinions of these activists and the Tea Party members in Congress. These congressmen had nothing, but positive things to say about the speaker yesterday while Eric Erickson, Rush Limbaugh and other notable conservatives weren’t so kind. That gap will disappear soon enough as those congressmen look to stay on the good side of Erickson and Co.

Many reform conservatives were appalled with the Tea Party’s tactics. Ross Douthat hopes this was a learning exercise for the party so that it won’t “pull this kind of stunt again.” David Frum is ready for the Tea Party to exit altogether. He’s not alone in that opinion.

But Boehner and Republican leaders know that as much as they want to do that, they can’t. Whether they like it or not, the Republican Party needs the Tea Party as much as they need the moderates. They are listening to the Tea Party and not the moderates, because the Tea Party has no problem declaring war on the establishment and jumping ship. That may be electoral suicide, but the right wing doesn’t fear those consequences. The moderates do. It’s the same reason the hard-liners didn’t fear the political consequences of a futile government shutdown or the economic consequences of breaching the debt ceiling. It’s a game of chicken between the moderates and radicals. Whoever is willing to ditch the party and cause electoral defeat for both has control. Right now, that’s the Tea Party.

That’s why Boehner can’t simply cast aside his conservative members. It’s why he must do everything in his power to keep them happy and listen to them.

The way moderates take back the party is not through a civil war, but by defeating them in elections. As these extreme tactics fail, the moderate Republicans will earn more support from the marginal Tea Party voter. Slowly, they will win back their trust. This won’t be an overnight change. It will take at least the 2014 election cycle, probably longer and there’s nothing either party can do to speed it along. It’s deeply frustrating for Democrats to look across the aisle and see a party held captive by a small fraction of extreme members. For Republicans, it’s even more frustrating to be the ones held captive by those members. But casting aside those members in a nasty civil war will be political suicide for both the establishment and the Tea Party. The best thing moderate Republicans can do is win elections.