Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at immigration reform. See Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.
For a while, the White House was positioning to take on climate-change after financial regulation reform. Now that Congress is closing in on a deal on financial regulation reform, rustlings are underway for immigration reform to displace the climate-change bill to be the new issue du jour. This would be a bad idea for Democrats.
Although Democrats think that they have an election year issue which could help turn out the Hispanic vote, Republicans will say that the economy is the American peoples’ top priority, and if the Democrats take on immigration reform, they will feed the narrative that Democrats seem more concerned with every other priority but that of cash-strapped, jobless middle class Americans trying to survive this recession. It will reinforce the Tea Partiers’ belief that Washington is tone deaf, and intent on consolidating its powers to wreck havoc on hardworking Americans.
All this Democrats may well weather if they could pass an immigration bill soon and in time for the November elections. But that is not going happen because Democrats are themselves divided about what to do with immigration reform. Democrats will enjoy the short-term gain of criticizing Arizona’s new law on immigration, but they will also bear the longer-term costs of failing to find an alternative solution to which all can agree. Labor, after all, has never been particularly pro-immigration because immigrants constitute a massive contingent of workers who could and probably would threaten labor’s collective bargaining unity. Put another way, while Republicans are relatively united behind Governor Jan Brewer and Arizona’s new immigration law, Democrats are much less united in opposition. If Democrats get started on this issue, it would become an unfinished requiem gnawing at their credibility through November. If the White House possessed barely enough capital to weather the health-care storm; it has none left for another contentious fight.
Democrats are shooting in the dark in search of a game-changing pivot which could derail the train-wreck some are anticipating in the November elections. When Barbara Boxer is receiving the President’s fund-raising help, when the President’s and Vice-President’s former seats in the Senate, and Harry Reid’s seat are all under siege, we know that Democrats are not panicking without cause. But they should also remember that the President’s party almost always loses seats in mid-term elections; and that by protesting too hard against history, they could end up only in confirming it. The White House should be wary of the cheap thrill of calling Republicans xenophobic and taking on an issue too big that it would fail.