Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Great Politics and Good Policy

Most Democrats are gloomy about their party’s ability to impact federal policy in the next 4 years, given the Republican domination of the executive and legislative branches. Contributing to their woes is that President Bush has proved amazingly effective in enacting his agenda, passing 3 major tax cuts, his signature education plan (No Child Left Behind), The Patriot Act, a prescription drug benefit, and Medicare reform all in his first term. He even managed recently to broker a compromise with conservative Republican stalwarts in the House to pass the politically sensitive intelligence reform bill that some observers thought had reached a fatal impasse.

Its only natural then, that after picking up seats in both chambers, the GOP is dreaming bigger, starting with Social Security reform, tort reform, and a massive overhaul of the tax code. In a sign of the times, a few key Democratic senators, no doubt lamenting their minority fate, have hinted that they may leave the Senate to run for state office (Dodd, Corzine) or take a cabinet post in the Bush administration(Lieberman). Besides the terribly mundane idea of holding oversight hearings, Democrats have not yet suggested any creative ways to confound the majoritarian nature of the Congress and faithfully represent the 48 percent of the country who voted for John Kerry.

Still, I would like to offer a dissenting viewpoint that Democrats will actually have significant opportunities to influence policy in the next four years, if they adopt a strategic approach to the new realities of the 2nd Bush term. Many of my suggestions will be controversial in certain quarters of the Party, but given their minority status, Democrats will have to try to broker new alliances forged by new common interests rather than traditional political ideology. I want to argue that in fact, on immigration, social security reform, Iran policy, and “values”, Democrats can shape the debate and put serious pressure on President Bush and the GOP, and possibly even enact their preferred policy positions. With the right strategy, the Democrats may find themselves more powerful during the 2nd Bush term than the first, and even lay the foundation for a return to the majority. I begin today with immigration reform.

Immigration policies arouse passions on both sides. On right wing talk radio and Fox News, policies concerning illegal immigrants (primarily from Mexico) dominate the discourse. The discussions are often highly personalized, with graphic stories about violent crimes committed by illegals, porous border crossings ripe for terrorists, and crowded sidewalks of migrant workers on Main Street, USA. On the liberal end, pro-immigrant groups, including many 2nd generation Americans defend immigration on highly personal grounds as well, recognizing the tremendous opportunities that America can provide to the hard working and entrepreneurial foreign born, and wanting to ensure that America remains a magnet for the best and brightest. Their analysis usually lacks any serious consideration of border security. The elephant in the room is the burgeoning Hispanic population, who no one wants to offend, but which remains extremely diverse in terms of politics, social attitudes, and level of cultural assimilation.

The GOP has two competing forces on immigration policy. On one side are President Bush, the Wall Street Journal Editorial page, and free market conservatives, who understand the contribution of illegal immigrant labor to the American economy and to a lesser extent support the full mobility of labor across borders. On the other side is the anti-immigration right, led by Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado, who hail from states increasingly affected by illegal immigration and have the support of the grassroots of the GOP. Bill O’Reilly has made illegal immigration a major issue on his TV and radio shows, emphasizing it during his interview with President Bush, in a rare departure from his soft approach with the President.

During Bush’s first term, the anti-immigration right was loud but loyal, out of respect for party unity and in deference to Karl Rove’s iron fist. The 2nd Bush term however is a different story. No longer bound to unabashedly support a President up for reelection, and perhaps with Presidential aspirations of their own, several legislators are planning to push immigration to the front of the agenda, arguing against Bush’s preferred policy and possibly pushing other White House priorities to the side.

For his part, Bush has much less leverage with unruly legislators in his second term, and will have even less after 2006. Prominent GOP politicians are already planning for life post-Bush and this makes the President far more dispensable than before. In addition, the base of the Republican Party finds itself diametrically opposed to the conservative elites on this issue, and outnumber them considerably.

So where do the Democrats come in? To pass his preferred immigration policy, Bush will need Democratic votes in both chambers to overcome his divided party. In doing so, he would likely create an opportunity for an anti-immigrant GOPer like Tancredo or James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin to run an insurgent 2008 campaign that could divide the GOP the way the Iraq War divided the Democrats. Bush might not care much about that, but Karl Rove does, primarily because his dreams of Republican dominance go beyond Bush and perhaps onto Bill Frist in 2008.

Thus, Democrats should start talking about immigration now, on the blogs, Air America, and in the state legislatures. Democrats can rightfully argue that illegal immigration is a serious concern (which many Americans will agree with) and that we need to have national debate. The right-wingers will be a useful ally here, finding common ground with the Democrats in hoping to bring the issue to the forefront.

If they can successfully force Bush to address the issue, Democrats should coalesce behind Bush’s proposal to match guest workers with employers under a temporary worker arrangement. Under this plan, employed immigrants could renew their visas every three years and remain in the country. Democrats could push for a strong border security component to the plan, more federal money to the states to deal with new immigrants, and increased economic development aid to Mexico. While the plan is not perfect, it is an acceptable compromise that balances the economic and moral realities with the very real consequences of illegal immigration for the provision of public services and national security.

The legislation would pass easily, angering the Republican right much like the Iraq War turned the left wing of the Democratic Party into Deaniacs, who then pilloried John Kerry, John Edwards, and other war supporters during the primary season. These conditions eventually forced Kerry and Edwards to vote against the $87 billion funding bill for the troops, which all things now considered, was the pivotal point of the 2004 campaign.

Democrats could then spilt the Republican field the same way and force the eventual nominee (someone like Frist or Rudy Giuliani) to take difficult positions that either alienated his own party and/or moderate voters and Hispanics, increasing the chance of electoral success for the Democrats in 2008.

One caveat: You might find such political gamesmanship unseemly, but I would argue that Bush’s immigration plan is good policy and great politics, a combination the Democrats have lacked recently.

Finally you may question the practicality and efficacy of my suggestions. Can Democrats really accomplish what I have laid out? One Democratic Presidential hopeful seems to be taking the immigration issue more seriously than others. And whatever I may think of her chances, her political judgment is usually quite astute.

R.C.

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