Two of the basic rules of democratic politics are: Don’t hurt your allies, and don’t give your electoral opponents a weapon to use against you. As House Republican leaders prepare to announce their immigration principles near the end of this month, they should be aware of both rules. Two policies they are considering endorsing — legalization without citizenship and a massive increase in guest-worker visas — could sabotage the GOP’s standing with its base while also closing off future electoral roads.
Legalization without citizenship would split the base and offer few political dividends with the center. The driving force behind many Republicans’ skepticism about an immigration deal is not a fear that illegal immigrants will be granted citizenship; it is a worry that legalization will be traded for empty promises of enforcement. Legalization without citizenship, then, may be too clever by half: It sounds like an equitable splitting of the difference, but it misses the real point of concern for many Americans.
The Obama administration’s cavalier use of executive authority gives many on the right good reason to fear that any promises of enforcement will be broken faster than the president’s guarantee that if you like your health plan you can keep it. Further, the Obamacare rollout has been one example of bureaucratic incompetence after another; what are the odds that new immigration-enforcement rules, which will probably fall far below Obamacare on the president’s list of priorities, will be smoothly applied?
In addition to demoralizing many in the base, legalization without citizenship would probably open Republicans up to further attacks from the left. The same activists, lobbyists, and opportunists who denounce any effort at immigration enforcement as “xenophobic” would, the day after any legalization was signed, turn around and attack Republicans as the party of the anti-immigrant Know Nothings for their opposition to granting citizenship, too. Legalization without citizenship would give Democrats a wonderfully polarizing issue for 2014 and 2016. As Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice and a tireless advocate for “comprehensive immigration reform,” said recently, “reform without citizenship . . . would create a permanent underclass that harkens back to the darkest times in American history.” (Sharry also pledged over the summer to “kick” the posteriors of Republicans if they dared to stop the president’s immigration agenda.) Moreover, while anything can happen in Washington, it is highly likely that legalization without citizenship would eventually lead to citizenship, and most political observers know it. Legalization without citizenship would thus be another set-piece of Beltway Kabuki.
Meanwhile, championing massive new guest-worker programs — as imagined by the Senate immigration bill and supported by some House Republicans — could be quite damaging to the GOP’s economic message. Republicans can’t both complain about the terrible jobs picture and trumpet the need for more guest workers. Federal data show that inflation-adjusted wages have declined across much of the economic spectrum, with particularly steep declines for lower-paid jobs, during the supposed “recovery” of the past few years. Even America’s college graduates often face challenging employment prospects: According to a report released by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce in May 2013, recent graduates in computer and mathematics fields face an unemployment rate of 9.1 percent, and recent engineering graduates have an unemployment rate of 7.4 percent. In such a situation, large guest-worker programs constitute an assault on the middle and working classes.
The political effects of an immigration bill in 2014 go far beyond the House. While careful district drawing may make the House relatively protected from a Democratic takeover, Republicans will have to have a very good night to take over the Senate in November. And any deal on immigration could have significant implications for the GOP’s chances in many states. Some of those races will be toss-ups in areas that could be open to Republican overtures (such as Michigan), while others will be hard-fought contests in states that lean Republican (such as Louisiana, Arkansas, and North Carolina). In both cases, base turnout as well as votes from working-class Americans will be crucial. The combination of a demoralized base and blue-collar workers alienated by an immigration bill that undermines their economic interests could spell doom for GOP ambitions. In most of these toss-up states, voters identifying as “Hispanic” make up a tiny percentage of the electorate; Republicans could have far more to gain by pursuing the votes of working-class voters of all ethnicities than by acting against the interests of workers in the (very likely slim) hopes of winning over some activists.
Many GOP Senate candidates are not yet tainted by the flawed Gang of Eight bill that passed the Senate. Only three of the fourteen Republican senators up for reelection in 2014 voted for it (Lamar Alexander, Susan Collins, and Lindsey Graham), and many of the potential candidates for seats Republicans hope to flip have criticized it. For example, Arkansas congressman Tom Cotton has assailed Democratic senator Mark Pryor for his support of the bill. However, this advantage will weaken if the GOP House serves as an adjunct to the president in passing the immigration version of Obamacare. Republicans and blue-collar independents might not bother to show up to the polls at all, further damaging Republicans’ hopes in state elections.
But the issues here go far beyond 2014 — for both the future of the GOP and the future of the nation. The Great Recession further battered the economic prospects of many middle- and working-class Americans, and the 2008 financial crisis pushed many working-class Americans away from the GOP. This loss of standing with the middle class has severely hampered the ability of Republicans to forge a national governing coalition. Sluggish growth and a stagnant job market have undermined the economic opportunities of many Americans. For all the president’s complaints about income inequality, it has worsened during his administration. Economic sclerosis has combined with escalating social divisions to create an environment of normalized disappointment.
One of the brightest hopes for the Republican party is for it to become a standard-bearer for opportunity. It should seek to create a nation in which men and women of all types can have the hope of realizing their dreams of prosperity. Growing incomes for the middle would fuel economic growth, helping the American economy return to its traditional vitality. Against the demographic slicing and dicing favored by many on the left, this vision would celebrate Americans working together in a republic where all have equal civic dignity. This vision could also speak to all Americans — men and women, young and old, rich and poor. It would seek to provide opportunity to janitors as well as corporate executives. Its defense of upward mobility would benefit both immigrants and native-born Americans. Recently, some Republicans have decided to talk about the need to alleviate poverty (certainly a noble aim), but perhaps the greatest anti-poverty program is an economy where Americans of all stripes can get a job and get ahead.
Advocating a vision of expansive opportunity could parry the Left’s accusations that the GOP is a party held captive by the rich, and it could help regain the trust of voters in the economic middle. The realization — even a partial realization — of such a vision would also go a long way to restoring the electoral fortunes of Republicans and small-government conservatism. A people enjoying the fruits of a free market is far more likely to defend that market, and a body politic where a rising tide lifts all boats is one with less appetite for large government programs.
However, Republicans decrease their chances of advancing this case if they endorse a helot class — created through massive new guest-worker programs, through putting newly legalized immigrants into a state of pseudo-citizenship, or through encouraging another wave of illegal immigration. And a divisive debate about legalization could distract Americans from Republicans’ broader case for economic and civic restoration.
With the president on the run on health care, Republicans could advance their own health reforms. They could make a case for financial, regulatory, or trade reform. Republicans could use the next ten months to change the field of the policy debate. Instead of taking their cue from the left, Republicans could work to shape their own forward-looking agenda.
More than accolades from the New York Times or a thumbs-up from lobbyists, the GOP needs a realizable governing vision. Big-budget consultants and massive fundraising hauls are not enough to forge a governing coalition; as Ronald Reagan proved, an integrated and optimistic conservative vision can do so. With the wrong moves on immigration, House Republicans could injure their ability to articulate this alternative vision and could undermine the socio-economic conditions that sustain a free and prosperous republic.
— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.