Immigration reform becoming nonpartisan
Posted: Monday, February 4, 2013 7:00 pm
By DOUGLAS COHN
and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON — If ever there was a clear example of the axiom that elections have consequences, it is the GOP’s turnaround on immigration reform. Leading the charge is Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., who championed reform before he was against it, initially teaming up with Senator Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., on a legislative remedy, and then running for reelection in Arizona on an anti-reform platform. Now he’s out front pushing for immigration reform once again.
Pretty dizzying, isn’t it, and it gets more bizarre when you consider that last year’s Republican presidential candidate won his party’s nomination in part by moving farther to the right on the immigration issue than any of the other contenders, and no one in the field was what you might call soft on immigration. Romney coined the phrase self-deportation, suggesting that millions of illegal immigrants take it upon themselves to go back home, and he said in response to a question that as president he would veto the Dream Act.
It was President Obama’s executive order granting young people brought to the U.S. as children a legal right to remain and enroll in college or the military that was a factor in rallying Hispanic voters to join the Obama coalition. Obama won the Hispanic vote by a margin of 3 to 1, which McCain cited as a reason for Republicans to pursue immigration reform. “As you look at demographics in states like mine, that means that we will go from Republican to Democrat over time,” McCain said at a breakfast sponsored by Politico two days after appearing with a bipartisan group of senators to unveil a framework for immigration reform.
The sudden rush toward bipartisanship on an issue that only months ago had been so divisive is the result of naked politics. Republicans who look ahead to recapturing the White House understand that the GOP can’t win a national election if they don’t improve their standing with Hispanic voters, the fastest growing minority in the country.
House Republicans remain a stumbling block. Unlike McCain who can look around his state and see the changing demographics, a substantial number of House districts represented by Republicans have fewer than 10 percent Hispanic populations. They can kid themselves that immigration reform doesn’t matter to their constituents, but it’s not that simple.
How the party presents itself sends a message to other voters that the GOP must court, particularly in contested suburban districts. George W. Bush’s campaign theme in 2000 of compassionate conservatism softened his party’s hard edges and won over suburban women. In 2004, Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote, a number that no Republican since has come close to matching.
Bush made a good faith effort to achieve immigration reform, working with McCain and Kennedy. But their coalition fell apart, and when McCain subsequently ran for reelection, he said if the bill he had co-sponsored with Kennedy came up for a vote on the Senate floor, he would vote against it. Now McCain is back in the game, championing reform along with several other key senators that include on the Republican side, Florida’s Marco Rubio, a rising star and potential presidential contender. Rubio’s verbal gifts and instinctive charm were on display when he appeared on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show this week. Limbaugh started out with a tough line against reform proposals offered by the senators but before long he was agreeing with Rubio that what they offer is a recognition of reality, and that whatever the senators propose has to be better than anything the White House and Obama come up with.
Tough decisions and hard compromises lie ahead, but the betting is that Washington has turned a corner on immigration reform. A big vote in the Senate, with perhaps more than 70 senators voting aye before the summer recess, could force the House’s hand and the sound you hear will be gridlock breaking. Published in The Messenger 2.4.13