What should the Obama administration and congressional leaders push next, now that they have won the health care debate? Finance reform passed a Senate panel yesterday, and it is undoubtedly needed, but the bill passed on a straight party-line vote and finance reform is another highly complicated issue. The President needs to change not just the tone in Washington, but that dynamic of partisan fratricide, and he needs an issue that does not paint him and his party as the champions of big government. They should take up immigration reform.
Immigration reform? Another highly contentious issue? Another tough, tough vote for key congressmen in some swing districts? Why would they pursue that?
First and foremost, the administration should lead next with immigration reform because it is the right thing to do and can be defended as such. The numbers supporting health care grew only after the White House got out of the wonk weeds and began defending the reforms as the right thing to do. People like it when you stand up for your principles.
Second, immigration reform plays against type. Much of the president’s loss in popularity among Independent voters has been the result of the GOP’s ability to tag him as the defender of old-style, big government solutions. But, in the immigration debate, it is the government that needs to be reined in. Currently, in these horrific immigration raids, parents are separated from their children, and wives from their husbands, because different members of the same family have a different legal status. You don’t have to be a Tea Party advocate to think that it is creepy to have the government officials separating kids from their parents. Which leads to the third point.
Separating families is not only un-American it is unchristian. The big pro-immigrant March last Sunday was largely organized by churches, and it began with an interfaith prayer service. The Catholic Church has long been a leader in advocating on behalf of immigrants’ rights and after the bruising fight on health care, moving on to immigration would give both sides a reason to let bygones be bygones. Evangelical Christians, who tend to line up on the Republican side of most issues, are also increasingly in favor of immigration reform as their own churches fill with Latino families. If the President does decide to push for immigration reform, he should begin with a speech in Pottstown, Iowa where an immigration raid destroyed the local community. He should give the speech on the steps of St. Brigid’s church with the evangelical pastor and Catholic priests standing behind him and a group of children whose parents were taken away in front of him. Quote from the Book of Exodus. Make the debate personal and cast it in explicitly moral terms because it is personal and it is an explicitly moral issue.
Fourth, moving on immigration reform energizes Latinos to vote in November and divides the GOP. God bless Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-SC, for recognizing the need for the GOP to get on the pro-immigration bandwagon. He does not have many joiners at this point. Even John McCain, who once embraced the issue, has had to back off, at least until after his primary in which he faces a hard-right challenger. Nonetheless, there is some, albeit not much, bipartisan support for reform. And, if the rest of the GOP wants to place itself in the anti-immigrant camp and push the fastest growing section of the electorate into the welcoming arms of the Democratic Party, so be it. I need scarcely add that immigration reform is the kind of issue that creates political loyalties that last at least two generations. But, Democrats need that loyalty now as well as in 30 years. The GOP base is energized and no one doubts the Tea Party crowd will be out in force in November. Energizing Latino voters helps Democrats in critical swing districts in Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, California, Florida and even in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania where significant pockets of Latino voters could tip a low-turnout midterm election.
I have a soft-spot in my heart for cap-and-trade legislation, but it has already been tagged as a jobs-killer and that is surely the most toxic label to possess in this economy. It also is more complicated and would invite the wonk who lives inside President Obama’s brain to resurface when the last month has showed us the nation needs to see less of the wonk and more of the politician, the very well-informed politician, but the politician nonetheless. It would energize the Sierra Club, but the issue lacks the visceral quality of the immigration debate. Immigration reform also invites the kind of racist bad behavior on display this past weekend outside the Capitol, and it is in the Democrats’ political interest to have the GOP explaining away the extremists in their base rather than attacking the Democrats. Exposing the moral bankruptcy and ugliness of the nativists is always a fine civic goal.
Yes, immigration reform would be another tough vote for some members of Congress. But, as noted, many of the swing districts are in areas with large Latino populations and the vote is not that tough if you represent Arizona. And, with some Republican support in both chambers, the Democrats could give a pass to some of their members from rural areas in the Northeast and Midwest where the issue is not so popular. Besides, after Sunday, isn’t it clear that Speaker Pelosi could pass almost anything through Congress? There must be an understandable psychological desire to rest on one’s laurels, and to not want to force another tough vote on her caucus. That desire should be resisted.
There is an analogy, an inexact one to be sure, from history that suggests itself. In the spring of 1945, it became obvious that the Soviet Union, whose Red Army was in effective control of Poland, had no intention of allowing free and fair elections in that country, nor of allowing the "London Poles" who represented the pre-war government to interfere with the puppet regime the Soviets had set up in Lublin. Tensions between the Soviets and her Western Allies mounted almost as soon as the ambiguous protocols were signed at Yalta. Then, one of those earth-shattering moments occurred that has the potential to change everything: Franklin Roosevelt died.
British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden was in Washington and he telegraphed Prime Minister Winston Churchill about the political consequences of FDR’s demise: "Stettinius [the U.S. Secretary of State] said that both Stalin and Molotov had shown signs of being deeply moved by the President’s death. Stalin had asked Harriman [the U.S. ambassador to Moscow] whether there was any contribution he could make at a moment like this to assist to promote the unity of the great Allies. Stettinius said that fortunately Harriman had not at once replied ‘Poland,’ but instead had suggested that it would be a good thing if Molotov could come to San Francisco for the Conference [on the United Nations]." I do not see why it was fortunate that Harriman did not say "Poland." What if Harriman had said it to Molotov? Would it have made a difference? Probably not. We know for sure that the negotiations in San Francisco did nothing for the Poles. But, the point is this: After an earth-shaking event, and the passage of health care is such an event, the landscape is so changed that political actors are inclined to seek stability even when the times call for thinking big. Immigration reform is big. The President should put it next on the agenda.
Michael Sean Winters