The Dems' Immigration Dilemma

Column by Gloaria Borger

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The fence along the border in Nogales, Ariz.

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For the past year or so, the Republicans handed the Democrats a gift that kept on giving: immigration reform. The GOP was divided—with the president standing firmly against most of his party, calling for a "path to citizenship"—as the Democrats watched the squabbling from the sidelines. Even more to the point, they were absolutely delighted at the prospect of picking up the support of Hispanic voters outraged at the efforts of some Republicans to deport 12 million illegal immigrants. It was a free ride, and Democrats were happy to take it.

Until the wheels came off. Hillary Clinton didn't mean to be the one to do it, but she was. Her struggle with herself over how to handle the issue of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants the other week changed everything. Not only was she caught without a clear idea of how to handle the matter; the entire dais of Democrats sharing the debate stage with her seemed to be a tad undone by the question—and pleased that she had been called on first. That way, they could jump on her for taking both sides of an issue (a fair critique, to be sure) but delay their own answers long enough to figure out how to straddle the matter. And they're still doing it.

It's not hard to figure out why. Immigration is a killer issue, one that cuts so many ways it's hard for a pol to figure out just how to pander: Liberals are against building that fence to keep illegal immigrants out; conservatives are worried the fence won't be tall enough. Most Americans want some form of reform, yet the solutions are literally all over the map, largely constituency-driven. If you're from New England, for instance, your view is likely to be different from that of someone who lives in the Southwest. "I could empathize with Senator Clinton," Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, told me. "I've had to think my way through about what makes sense."

That's a nice way of saying that the Democratic Party—and its candidates—had better get started. And here's the key reason: Independent voters are unhappy that nothing has been done on the matter, and anyone who wants to be president needs to keep independent voters happy. In fact, a recent survey by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg shows that the top issue underlying the discontent of independents is "unprotected" borders. For these voters, the matter of illegal immigration is a question of breaking laws and not a stalking horse for something else—like racism. The public is practical and wants tougher enforcement. And if the Democrats can't find some way to embrace the principle of the rule of law, then they've got a problem. "We need to have a strategy beyond saying the Republicans are awful," says one top Democratic strategist. "And we don't."

Tough political call. So it's no surprise there's a debate raging within the Democratic Party about what to do. And the sticking point isn't about enforcement; everyone agrees that needs to be stronger. It's about benefits for illegal immigrants. Should taxpayers provide any? And, if so, what are the parameters? It's not an easy political call. "The push for more benefits is a killer," says one Democratic strategist involved in discussions about immigration. "The public doesn't want that, but it's a problem with some Hispanic leaders." Ipso facto, some Democrats—like the ones running for president—are unwilling to take it on.

That's a mistake. There's a smart analogy being offered by Greenberg, and Democrats ought to listen. Given voters' dissatisfaction with the lack of immigration reform, he says, why not actually offer a proposal to do something? It could be, he says, a "welfare moment." As in: Bill Clinton's end-welfare-as-we-know-it pledge in 1992. That plan was a major component of Clinton's success—not only because it painted him as a new kind of Democrat but also because he seemed fearless in his eagerness to tread into waters Democrats had once avoided. Clinton's willingness to take on the issue was essential to changing—and shaping—the debate. It also transformed him into a leader. Now Hillary Clinton has the opportunity to do something similar, if she has the guts. The first candidate who gets there should get the credit.