Republicans Dance Around Immigration Reform

The GOP tries to figure out how to sell immigration reform to a deeply skeptical base.

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Former Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at the Hispanic Leadership Network conference in Coral Gables, Fla., Friday, April 19, 2013, an annual gathering of conservative Latino lawmakers.

The Republican establishment went to the Bipartisan Policy Center this morning and gave a seminar on how best to sell comprehensive immigration reform to a conservative base that remains deeply skeptical of the bill wending its way through the Senate – and how to absolve the party of blame if it fails.

The establishment in this case was represented by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the member of that political dynasty most beloved by conservatives, and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, the megalobbyist who was once Ronald Reagan's political director and then ran the Republican National Committee when the GOP retook control of the House for the first time in 40 years back in 1994. While a Bipartisan Policy Committee panel is obviously not the place where they're going to convince a large section of the GOP base to come around on immigration reform, their comments laid out a pretty good talking points blueprint of how to address conservative concerns.

It's the economy, stupid! Both men framed immigration as primarily a rah-rah economic issue of national greatness. That was the advice Bush gave House Republicans this morning in his closed-door meeting with them, he said. "You change the conversation from the question of illegal immigration and you move it to 'How do you create strategy that sustains economic growth?' and the whole dynamic of the conversation changes," he said, adding, "That is a winning message in conservative America for sure."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Opening their talk, Bush had described immigration reform as "important for renewing American greatness" and an "enormous opportunity for fulfilling our potential as a nation," while Barbour talked about America being in a "global battle for capital and labor." He added: "GDP growth is simply productivity multiplied by the number of workers. I wasn't a math major, but I can figure out" that if the labor market stays flat, so will gross domestic product.

A pathway not taken. Sure, some conservatives worry that including a pathway to citizenship in a new immigration law would, as a recent book on the matter put it, "signal once again that people who circumvent the system can still obtain the full benefits of American citizenship," and would be an "undeserving reward for conduct we cannot afford to encourage." But, Bush said, the path contemplated in the Senate bill is sufficiently long and arduous as to strike the right balance. And anyway, he said, "my guess is the majority of people that hopefully will get legalized status will not even apply for citizenship," he said, citing the experience of the 1986 immigration overhaul when, he said, most newly legalized immigrants did not apply for citizenship. To suggest that a pathway would lead to hordes of new citizens "totally misreads what the aspirations are for a whole lot of people."

(Full disclosure: Do you know what I I did there? I snarkily opposed Jeb Bush today against Jeb Bush in his recent book, "Immigration Wars," where he opposed a path to citizenship, which he was for both before and after he was against it.)

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

(Fuller disclosure: Asked today about the reaction to the book, Bush dismissed his critics as people who hadn't read it. I admittedly have not, so I suppose it's possible that the quotations from it in the press – "Permanent residency in this context, however, should not lead to citizenship," for example – mean something other than what they say.)

The cost of action. Barbour identified cost – the fear that a new law will blow a hole in our ballooning deficit – as a big political hurdle in the GOP. The best-known example on this score is a Heritage Foundation study from last month saying that the bill will cost $6.3 trillion. Barbour was dismissive: "Everybody knows it was a political document and it was designed to be a political document," he said. "The idea that we're going to predict 50 years into the future to the precision to within a few tens of millions of dollars is silly."

House of no? House of yes! Barbour made an interesting point about the politics of the House, where most of the Republican districts are rural and increasingly white and so presumably less inclined to favor immigration reform. "Those districts are largely rural," he said. "Those districts have a huge dependency on agriculture. Agriculture in America has a huge dependency on immigrant labor. … Those congressmen that you're talking about have huge constituencies that are dependent on this labor." So they'll hear from their constituents in favor of immigration reform, Barbour reasons.

Maybe so, but at this point this isn't a sneaking-up issue, and the support he foresees isn't manifesting itself in Congress or in polls yet. ("The polling is kind like street cars; if you miss one there will be another along in 10 minutes, going in a totally different direction," Barbour quipped, though the polling has been more consistent than he gives credit for.)

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Don't blame Republicans! The GOP establishmentarians also had talking points ready for the eventuality that all of this proves to be for naught, like in 2007 when fierce Republican opposition fueled by conservative talk radio animus killed an immigration overhaul favored by that other Bush. "It wasn't just Republicans," Jeb Bush argued this morning. "That was a wrong premise. A lot of people ran for cover" from the bill. (He is only partly right – the AFL-CIO eventually opposed the bill – but the principle opposition came from the right. As Reuters reported at the time, "the president was unable to overcome fierce opposition from fellow Republicans who said it was an amnesty that rewarded illegal immigrants. A majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives also opposed the Senate bill.")

If the House manages to pass a bill or bills this time, the establishmentarians argued, and the bill dies in conference committee, both sides will accrue blame. "I think the system will be blamed, not one party or the other, if both parties are engaged," Bush predicted.

Perhaps. This is the Kindergarten theory of politics: Everyone's a winner (or everyone's a loser, as the case may be)! But I still suspect that voters are more interested in results than the fact that both parties tried really, really hard.

"The biggest issue … is that if it doesn't pass, the news media's already decided it's the Republicans' fault," Barbour said. "The liberal media elite is prepared to say, 'Well, it's the Republicans' fault.'" Damn that liberal media! Of course it is possible that this predetermination is based on the facts as they currently exist, notably that the Senate bill was crafted by a bipartisan group of senators while the opposition to it is overwhelmingly Republican (it was David Weigel notes, Republicans alone who opposed even debating the bill, for example).

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