So far, it doesn’t look like the story of the Tsarnaev brothers is killing Republican support for immigration reform. John McCain and Lindsey Graham insisted that their identity makes reform all the more important. But Boston aside, if you pay a little attention you see signs that the right is getting a bit restive about all this reasonableness. There’s a long and winding road from here to there, but if the GOP does drop immigration, then it will essentially be a party of nothing, the Seinfeld Party, a party that has stopped even pretending that policy is something that political parties exist to make.
Yesterday in Salon, political scientist Jonathan Bernstein wrote up the following little discovery, which has to do with the numbering of bills. Historically, the party that controls the House of Representatives reserves for itself the first 10 slots—HR 1, HR 2, and so on. Usually, the majority party has filled at least most of those slots with the pieces of legislation that it wants to announce to the world as its top priorities. When the Democrats ran the House, for example, HR 1 was always John Dingell’s health-care bill, in homage to his father, a congressman who pushed for national health care back in the day.
Today, nine of the 10 slots are empty. Nine of the 10. The one that is occupied, HR 3, is taken up by a bill calling on President Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Even this, insiders will tell you in an honest moment, is completely symbolic and empty: the general expectation among Democrats and Republicans is that Obama will approve the pipeline sometime in this term, but that eleventy-jillion lawsuits will immediately be filed, and the thing won’t be built for years if at all, and nothing about this short and general bill can or is designed to change that. One other slot, HR 1, is provisionally reserved for a tax-reform bill, so at least they have settled on a subject matter, but if you click on HR 1, you will learn that “the text of HR 1 has not yet been received.”
This wasn’t true of even the GOP in earlier vintages. Newt Gingrich had an aggressive agenda, as we remember all too well, and even Denny Hastert filled most of the slots. (The Democrats of 2009 didn’t, for some reason, but obviously the Democratic Congress of 2009 was the most agenda-heavy Congress since 1981 or arguably 1965.) Today’s GOP can’t be bothered to pretend.
I became a grown-up, to the extent that I am one, right around the time Ronald Reagan took office. Lots of people say things like, “Gee, the Republican Party was really a party of ideas then.” I argue that that assertion is vastly overaccepted today. The central conservative “idea,” after all—supply-side economics—was and remains a flimsy and evidence-free lie that has destroyed the country’s economic vitality and turned our upper classes into the most selfish and penurious group of people history has seen since the Romanovs. Other conservative ideas of the time were largely critiques of extant liberalism or gifts to the 1 percent dressed up in the tuxedoes of “liberty” and “freedom.” I’ll give them credit for workfare and a few other items. But the actual record is thinner than most people believe.
Still, there was some intellectual spadework going on. And still (and this is more important), there were people in the Republican Party who tried to bring those ideas into law. The Orrin Hatch of the 1980s and 1990s was a titan compared with the Orrin Hatch of today. When I look at Senate roll-call votes and see that immovable wall of nays on virtually everything of consequence that comes before them, I wonder what someone like Hatch really thinks deep down, but of course we’ll never know. He is doing what the party’s base demands of him, and those demands include that he clam up and denounce Obama and not utter one sentence that could be misinterpreted as signaling compromise.
This brings me back to immigration. The Tsarnaevs may not have derailed things, but other cracks are starting to show. Last Thursday—before we knew who the Boston bombers were—Rush Limbaugh speculated that immigration reform would constitute Republican “suicide.” A Politico article yesterday made the same point—an analysis showed that if 11 million “undocumented residents” had been able to vote in 2012, Obama might have won Arizona and would even have made a race of it in Texas. This did not go unremarked in right-wing circles yesterday. The Big Bloviator himself weighed in: “Senator Schumer can taste this. He’s so excited. All the Democrats. Why would we agree to something that they are so eager to have?”
Immigration is the one area today on which a small number of Republicans are actually trying. Limbaugh’s position last week is a change from a couple of months ago, when Marco Rubio had him admitting that maybe the GOP needed to embrace reform. It’s not hard to imagine him and Laura Ingraham and others turning surlier as the hour of truth on the bill approaches.
I will be impressed and more than a little surprised if the day comes and a majority of Republicans back an immigration bill. Passing such a bill is undoubtedly in their self-interest, as everyone has observed. What fewer have observed is that doing so is just not in their DNA. And life teaches us that genes usually get the better of reason.