Whatever one thinks about the substance of the House Republican immigration reform outline, in terms of the raw politics of 2014, introducing it now is bananas.
Immigration is a lose-lose issue for Republicans.
If immigration reform passes, it will boost Democrats' prospects in 2014 by demoralizing the GOP base and elevating President Obama, who just delivered a State of the Union Address that tacitly acknowledged he could no longer achieve anything major. If it fails again due to a conservative backlash, then it will trigger another wave of Democratic attacks on Republicans for being anti-Hispanic.
Last spring and summer, when immigration was in the news, Obama's approval rating among Hispanics was in the high-60s to mid-70s, according to Gallup. In January, it reached as low as 46 percent and stood at 51 percent in the most recent weekly average.
Even those pushing for action on immigration who argue - without the data to back it up - that Hispanics are a natural part of the Republican coalition, routinely acknowledge that any political dividends from reforming immigration would only happen over time. In the short term, especially during a midterm election year, it's a loser.
What makes the politics even worse for Republicans is that the failures of Obama’s health care law presents them with an issue that, if played properly, could allow them to unify the party and attract independents – the same formula that helped win them the majority in 2010, the year Obamacare was passed. Democrats are desperate to get away from Obamacare as an issue, and now Republicans have given them a huge gift. Republicans were supposed to be focused like a laser beam on Obamacare this year, instead, they’re showing themselves to have the aim of an Imperial Stormtrooper.
So what gives?
Over at Hot Air, Allahpundit mused: “Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics started tweeting in total mystification after the statement was released as to why the GOP would be pushing amnesty now, of all moments. If they were dead-set on doing this before the midterms, he reasoned, why not do it last year, to give conservative anger more time to cool before the big vote? Failing that, why not wait until next year, after the midterms, since no one expects the Latino vote to be decisive this fall? I have no answers to the first question but you know my answer to the second. I think (House Speaker John) Boehner's afraid that if they wait another year, until the GOP holds the Senate as well, conservative expectations for a 'tough' Republican-written law will be so high that the backlash when they fail to come through will be even more bitter than it'll be if they do it this year.” Though Allahpundit also notes that Boehner has since shown signs of waffling.
Now, certainly there’s an argument to be made that if Republicans support this policy, they shouldn’t let their decisions be determined by politics. But GOP leadership hasn’t exactly made a habit of standing up for principle. So why is now different?
Should Boehner defy the base of the party and go through with the immigration push, an analogy once offered by Milton Friedman comes to mind. In the analogy, Friedman compared policymakers attempting to adjust policy based on lagging economic indicators to “a fool in the shower” who finds the temperature too cold, and overcompensates in the other direction so the water becomes scolding hot.
This analogy can also be applied to the way that Boehner has vacillated between being overly indulgent and overly antagonistic toward House conservatives during his time as leader. Having been criticized as a sellout for striking a number of tax and budget deals with Democrats, Boehner allowed the Obamacare “defund” effort to play its course to completely predictable disastrous results. Once the damage was done due to his unwillingness to take a stand against this doomed-to-fail strategy, he decided to get tough on the Right and he lashed out at conservative groups who reasonably criticized a December budget deal as “ridiculous.”
Now, over the counsel of many conservatives, he’s decided to throw Obama and vulnerable Democrats a lifeline by changing the topic from health care to immigration.