DROPPING THE BALL

Immigration Reform? Not Until Hillary

Obama’s retreat on immigration was an unforced error, but we probably won’t see real reform until the 2020s anyway.

09.08.14 9:45 AM ET

The only thing about the Obama White House’s weekend decision to delay any action on immigration that surprised me was why the president had earlier promised to act before the election in the first place. He made the vow on June 30, and I remember thinking at the time how strange it seemed.

Why? Simple electoral politics. You need to spend literally no more than 40 seconds looking at a map of the pivotal Senate races to see that, to be perfectly blunt about it, the Latino vote just isn’t a factor. Democrats are defending seats in the following states: North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alaska on the first tier; Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, and Colorado on the second. Only in Colorado is the Latino vote sizeable. In the other seven states, especially the first four, Democrats are running in red states where they need to win a lot more white votes than Democrats usually do these days. And the same is true in the states where Democrats hope they might steal a Republican Senate seat—Georgia, Kentucky, and I suppose now we at least theoretically add Kansas (technically it’s an independent, not a Democrat, who stands a chance of unseating the GOP incumbent). These jurisdictions are not the Bronx, to put it mildly.

There are a few House districts where it might matter. Read this very interesting blog post from David Damore at Latino Decisions about how the Latino vote will figure into some House races, for example in the first and second districts of Arizona, where pro-immigration Democrats are defending their seats against well-financed, anti-immigration Republicans. But overall, Damore argues that Democrats’ poor candidate-recruitment efforts in GOP-held House districts with reasonably large Latino populations mean that a number of Republicans who could have faced decent challenges are getting a pass.

So if it’s just not a year when the Latino vote is going to be pivotal, why did Obama say what he said in June? It seemed and seems like an unforced error to me, like not anticipating that Bowe Bergdahl and his father were going to pop the Breitbart meter. Sometimes the political people at the White House just appear to be asleep. I suppose we have to allow for the possibility that he wanted to do the right thing. But to get the right thing done in politics, you have to do it at the right time. I kind of hate this category of overworked Obama-LBJ comparisons, but when Johnson became president, he didn’t charge right into civil rights. The first big bill he passed? A tax cut. Loosen ’em up, give ’em an easy vote, throw a little bouquet to the right, then go in for the liberal kill.

Maybe Obama and his people thought back in June that they’d be showing the Republicans—and Latino voters—that they had some stones. Maybe they were hoping they’d galvanize Latino opinion and drive up Latino turnout this fall. But clearly they were getting no indication that was happening, and now, in this about-face, they’ve ended up with the opposite result. Republicans are chortling and Latinos are fuming, over a promise that Obama was under no overwhelming pressure to make to start with.

Despite whatever acidic rhetoric Latino leaders are dishing out toward Obama today, I would expect that will change this fall. He’ll announce his unilateral moves on immigration after the election. The Republicans will boil with rage. In all likelihood, they’ll move to impeach. So then we’ll have the spectacle of one party—the party that has blocked the passage of an immigration bill in the first place—seeking to throw a president of the other party out of office for trying to do something on immigration that he wouldn’t have had to do if the first party hadn’t spent two years refusing to pass a bill. It’s pretty clear which side of that fence the vast majority of Latinos are going to come down on.

And anyway, Obama’s opinions and actions on the question won’t matter for much longer. The spotlight will soon fix itself on the presumptive Democratic 2016 nominee, whose name, I think, we all know. Keeping Latino loyalty to her party up in the 70-plus percent range is going be Hillary Clinton’s job starting next year.

I think she’ll manage to do that. She and her husband always have. Among the possible contenders on the GOP side, only Chris Christie has shown the remotest ability to change that dynamic, but after how relentlessly anti-immigrant his party has been these last couple of years, even he could have a hard time getting more than a third of the Latino vote.

What all this is really telling us is that we’re not going to see real immigration reform in this country anytime soon. If you asked me to guess, I would say the soonest it could happen would be during President Hillary Clinton’s second term. Immigration reform means a path to citizenship for people who came here illegally. The party of old white people who are law-and-order types to begin with and who fear what’s happening to the country they thought they knew just isn’t going to budge on that question until it really and truly has to.

That means, if Clinton wins, reform will never happen in her first term—there’s no way Republicans would hand her that huge a political victory as she’s gearing up to get herself reelected. It would be only after a 2020 loss—the party’s fourth straight, that would be—and a chance to start fresh with Latino voters in an open race in 2024 that the GOP might relent. And even then, it will depend on how riled up the white base is, whether Rush Limbaugh is still around filling their heads with hate, and kindred factors. And of course if Clinton doesn’t win and there’s a Republican president, reform (at least reform that includes a path to citizenship) becomes extremely unlikely.

So Obama mishandled this one. But don’t worry: Bleak as things seem today, rest assured they can get worse.