WASHINGTON – A few months before the election, President Barack Obama famously told a roomful of donors that “if we’re successful in this election, when we’re successful in this election, that the fever may break, because there’s a tradition in the Republican Party of more common sense.”
Obama did win the election. But asked by the New Republic whether he was seeing much movement on that whole fever-breaking thing, his answer was dryly honest. “Not yet, obviously.”
By and large, Washington isn’t gripped by fever. It’s gripped by actual disagreements and mismatched incentives. Republicans really do disagree with Obama on taxes. And most Republicans in the Senate and the House really do come from increasingly conservative districts that didn’t vote for Obama.
When you stack substantive disagreement atop a strategic incentive to disagree, you get Washington in 2013.
But — and this is key — Republicans weren’t behaving irrationally. They were behaving rationally. And that’s exactly why they might cut a deal on immigration even as they fight Obama on taxes. Two numbers explain why a rational Republican Party needs to do something dramatic on immigration: 27 percent and 2 percent.
Twenty-seven percent is the percentage of the Latino vote Mitt Romney received in 2012, according to the exit polls. Two percent is the projected increase in the nonwhite electorate come 2016. So Republicans are losing badly among Hispanic voters and Hispanic voters are becoming an increasingly important part of the electorate.
Those numbers supply the raw political case for acting on immigration. But the other side is the substantive case: A lot of elected Republicans simply want to do something on immigration. This isn’t like taxes, where almost every elected Republican has signed a pledge swearing to fight any and all tax increases.
The last major effort at immigration reform came in 2007, under President George W. Bush. The key Republican legislator on that bill was Sen. John McCain, Arizona, who would go on to be the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2008.
Support for comprehensive immigration reform is by no means unanimous within the Republican Party. Bush’s immigration reforms, for instance, fell before a conservative backlash. But some of the key conservatives behind that backlash have since changed their minds.
Sean Hannity, for instance, now says: “We’ve got to get rid of the immigration issue altogether. It’s simple, to me, to fix it. I think you control the border first. You create a pathway for those people that are here. You don’t say, ‘You’ve got to go home.’ And that is a position that I’ve evolved on.
“Because, you know what, it’s got to be resolved. The majority of people here, if some people have criminal records you can send them home, but if people are here, law-abiding, participating for years, their kids are born here, you know, it’s first secure the border, pathway to citizenship, done, whatever little penalties you want to put in there, if you want, but then it’s done.”
So on this issue, Republicans have both strategic and substantive reasons for making a deal. The question for the Obama administration is how to keep them from developing reasons for opposing whatever particular deal the Obama administration proposes.
And the answer, in a way, is obvious: The Obama administration shouldn’t propose a deal; it should stay out of the deal-making as much as possible.
The immigration-reform effort is being spearheaded by a bipartisan group of senators that includes Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat; McCain; Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat; Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican; Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat; Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican; Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat; and Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican.
That’s no accident. Durbin, Schumer and Menendez are close allies of the White House. The fact that they moved first isn’t a quirk of scheduling. It’s an effort to keep the fever down.
Republicans will fight almost anything Obama proposes. This is, again, not because they’re sick but because they run in primaries and represent districts and states where their constituents want them to fight anything overly associated with the Obama administration.
This is a frustrating fact of life for the Obama administration — and perhaps even a sick commentary on how our political system works — but it is, nevertheless, a fact: Its involvement polarizes issues. And it’s not unique to them. Presidential involvement in general polarizes issues.
By staying out, at least for now, the Obama administration is making it easier for Republicans to stay in.
At some point, the Obama administration’s involvement will become necessary. Certainly, the administration will have to take a position on whatever is being worked on in the Senate. But it’s wise to hang back for as long as it can, routing its preferences through the Democrats on the Senate working group.
Republicans have all the reason in the world to support immigration reform. The last thing the Obama administration wants to do is give them a reason to oppose it. The fever is low now, but that doesn’t mean it can’t spike.
Ezra Klein is a columnist at The Washington Post. His work focuses on domestic and economic policymaking, as well as the political system.