Immigration Reform in 2011?

| Mon Nov. 1, 2010 9:45 AM PDT

Richard Wolffe looks into his crystal ball to tell us what will happen after the midterms:

The White House plans to test Republicans' unity and political resolve on three controversial issues: repealing the Bush tax cuts, implementing the deficit commission's findings, and pushing immigration reform....The White House believes immigration reform may be the toughest test for the GOP — even tougher than tackling the deficit. "This will separate the reasonable Republicans from the pack running for president," said one senior Obama aide.

Ross Douthat is unimpressed:

This is the kind of thing that makes me seriously doubt the White House’s political acumen. Even in the best of times, with the economy humming and the country in a relatively expansive mood, immigration can be an issue that divides Democrats as easily as it divides Republicans. And in an economic downturn, with the public trending in a pro-enforcement direction, it seems like an obvious loser.

....In 2008, amid intense Democratic enthusiasm, the Latino share of the electorate was still only 9 percent, and as Andrew Gelman noted afterward it’s very difficult to argue that they were a particularly crucial component in Obama’s sweeping victory. Which suggests that if the White House wants to repeat that triumph in 2012, wooing back disaffected whites is going to be much more important than re-consolidating the Hispanic vote — and it’s hard to see how a big effort on immigration reform helps them on this front, and very, very easy to see how it might hurt.

I suspect Ross is right about this. The obvious argument in the past has been that immigration is a bigger wedge issue for Republicans than for Democrats. The Republican culture warrior base is dead set against a deal, after all, while the Republican business base would really like one. They don't want tough enforcement, they want a nice big pool of cheap workers. If you can set these two groups at each other's throats, it's a win for the Dems.

But I don't see how this works. Even in 2006 the business community didn't push all that hard for immigration reform, and in the middle of an economic slowdown they'll care even less about it. It's just not on their Top Five list these days, and they'd much rather let sleeping dogs lie and team up with the culture warriors to insure a Republican victory in 2012. Their reward in the form of juicy industry subsidies, tax bennies, regulatory forbearance, union bashing, and skyrocketing incomes for the rich more than makes up for the minor impact of not getting a new immigration law.

Democrats, on the other hand, have a real problem with this. Push too hard and they seriously risk pissing off moderates. Push too timidly and the liberal base, which is already famously disenchanted with them, will turn on them once again.

I hate to say it, but it seems like a lose-lose, politically. It also seems like a suicide run, since nothing of any real substance has the slightest chance of passing with Republicans in control of the House and only a slim Democratic majority in the Senate. I guess I'd really like to hear more about what the supposed strategy is here.

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