Profiles in Courage--Not!
Talk about political miscalculation. Congress goes home for its spring break, unable to come to any agreement on an immigration bill. Both sides--albeit for different reasons--figured it was OK. House Republicans thought their version--which builds a fence and declares all illegal immigrants to be felons--was red meat for their conservative base, which they need to turn out for the 2006 midterm elections. And some Senate Democrats argued that no bill is better than a compromise bill--so they can use the issue to make the difference in a handful of Senate races. In fact, some even pounced on their own lion--Ted Kennedy--who is working with John McCain to actually get something of value out of Congress before it adjourns. Imagine that.
As it turns out, the naysayers--and their political calculations--are dead wrong. If ever there was a time when Congress proved itself to be the nation's greatest lagging indicator, this is it: With hundreds of thousands of protesters marching in support of a path to citizenship across the country, congressional do-nothingism is absurd, even abhorrent. Now that Americans are paying attention to immigration and its problems, polls show they're interested in solutions, not just fences. In fact, polls show that most Americans--74 percent, according to CBS News--think that illegal immigrants should be able to stay and work in this country, with these caveats: You pay a fine, pay any back taxes you may owe, learn to speak English, have no criminal record. Eminently, eminently sensible.
Suddenly, with American public opinion evident, some sanity seemed to be settling in on the two top GOP leaders last week--Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert--who said they would not pass legislation that criminalized illegal immigrants now living here. Good start, but not enough. And maybe too late for the Republican Party. The immigration debate could shape political alliances in the same ways that the civil rights movement defined a generation of African-American voters. As the protesters continue to march, how will they answer this question: Who are our real friends?
It's ironic, in a way, that George W. Bush's Republican Party should come to this. After all, the president's guest-worker program is a sane approach to the problem--and he never called immigrants felons. Bush received 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004--which is double what Republicans received in 1996. And don't think it has gone unnoticed that while Bush's support among Hispanics has grown, the Hispanic support for Democratic presidential contenders has gone in the opposite direction: A decade ago, Bill Clinton won 72 percent of the Hispanic vote. In 2004, John Kerry won 53 percent. It's a trajectory the Democrats want to stop--and reverse.
Sick and tired. That is why the Democrats can't be let off the hook here, either: John McCain, at every opportunity, will tell you that the Democrats killed a compromise measure because they want the issue to take to the voters. And, as one Senate Democrat told me (not for attribution, of course), McCain is right: "I don't trust the Republicans and this president to deliver a good deal," he said. "I'm in no mood to split the difference on this issue." And that's where presidential leadership--if there is any left to be had--comes in: If real reform is what the president wants, don't blame just the Democrats, tempting as that may be. And don't split the difference with the build-a-fence House Republicans. Put yourself on the line for what you believe.
There's also a more cosmic political issue here: People are growing more and more weary of the way their elected officials do business--with more focus on the politics of the problem than on the problem itself. They're sick of the tone of American politics, and of political cycles that produce opportunists, not problem solvers. Here's the unequivocal evidence: When CBS asked Americans if Congress is actually accomplishing anything, 67 percent say it's doing less than usual. That accounts for the dismal 27 percent congressional approval rating. Members of Congress may complain at having to run with an enormously unpopular president (now at 37 percent in the polls), but they're not exactly getting kudos from the voters, either.
The process is stuck, and that's our fault, too. If the do-nothing cycle of American politics is to change, the voters have to demand it.
This story appears in the April 24, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.