Remember when immigration reform was going to be the occasion for a big bipartisan love-fest? Republicans, the thinking went, knew they couldn’t afford to keep alienating Latino voters. The party’s corporate funders were solidly on board. Even Sean Hannity said he’d “evolved” on the issue.
Those were the days. Now we’re seeing reports that negotiations in the House are on the verge of collapse. And in the Senate, Marco Rubio, in what Steve noted yesterday is a pretty stunning turnaround, is now saying that without stringent new border security provisions that Senate negotiators already rejected, he won’t support the bill he helped negotiate.
How did things go downhill so fast?
For one thing, conservative House Republicans are now insisting that immigrants be cut off from the benefits of Obamacare during their 15-year path to citizenship. In other words, as New York magazine’s Jon Chait puts it, “House Republicans' hatred of Obamacare is at such deranged levels that it is leeching into even largely unrelated problems.” And Rubio, of course, is hampered by his presidential ambitions, which dictate that he not alienate his party’s right-wing base by appearing to concede too much to Obama and congressional Democrats.
But Republicans’ hatred for Obamacare, and Rubio’s presidential ambitions, both existed a month or so ago, when immigration reform was going swimmingly. So what’s changed? How about the confluence of Obama administration “scandals”—the IRS’s targeting of Tea Party groups, the Justice Department’s aggressive pursuit of journalists, and the ongoing Benghazi saga—that have re-energized the GOP?
What do those stories have to do with immigration? Here’s what: Let’s set aside the question of just how scandalous these "scandals" really are, and how much they really reflect on the Obama administration or the White House. The point is, the Beltway media has bought into them just enough to create, at least temporarily, a storyline about an administration dogged by political controversy. And that's led Washington Republicans and their conservative allies to believe that they can ride that storyline back to power—just as they tried to do in the late 1990s with the Clinton impeachment. (A related benefit: The IRS story, in particular, is a perfect way for Boehner, McConnell et al. to line up behind the Tea Party and bolster their shaky credibility with the GOP’s activist base.)
That changes Republicans' calculus on just about everything—especially immigration. They see a potential way to win back the Senate next year and the White House in 2016 without having to alienate their core supporters by backing immigration reform. So their motivation for getting behind the project has gone out the window. Of course, that's far from the only reason that immigration talks may have hit the rocks. But it's almost certainly a piece of the puzzle.
Whether that strategy will work out for Republicans is another question. Getting Americans to think of President Obama, whose personal likability ratings are consistently high, as a 21st century Richard Nixon, may be a tough sell. But that doesn’t mean the GOP won’t try. And immigration reform could be the first casualty of their new strategy.