Ross Douthat disagrees with my argument that the debates over spending and amnesty are analogous. He makes some good points, but I think the analogy still holds.
His first reason for doubting the parallel is “There’s much more elite support for spending restraint than there is for immigration enforcement.” I’m not sure this is true. Yes, most everyone says they’re for spending restraint, so there’s something to his point, but I think that’s more lip service than anything else. Shrinking government, like enforcing immigration laws, is like broccoli to the political class, whereas getting more revenue is, along with amnesty, the dessert — our representatives will eat as little of the broccoli as they can get away with to clear the way for dessert.
Douthat’s second point is: “The historical record suggests that deficit deals turn out considerably better for conservatives than immigration deals.” He’s right that the 1986 amnesty/enforcement bargain was a flop, but he compares it to Bush the First’s 1990 budget deal, which raised taxes and reduced spending and deficits. I yield to those who followed that issue more closely, but it seems to me a big part of the success of that deal was the end of the Cold War — defense spending fell 30 percent from 1989 to 1999, and fell almost 50 percent as a share of GDP.
Finally, he says: “There doesn’t have to be a deal on immigration.” This is true. But, as Krauthammer points out today, that imperative allows Republicans to force spending cuts in return, not for tax hikes, but for raising the debt ceiling. And this is why, as he writes, “Boehner’s offer of a dollar-for-dollar deal — raise the debt ceiling to match corresponding spending cuts — is a thing of beauty. … After all, it invites Obama to choose how much to cut. For example, $500 billion buys him a $500 billion debt-limit hike — and only a short-term extension.” This is the kind of piecemeal, non-comprehensive deal that can work on immigration too — and, frankly, pave the way for some future tax hikes (or, in the other arena, some future amnesties) by front-loading the spending cuts (or enforcement), so spending or immigration hawks aren’t just left holding a bunch of empty promises.