Immigration reform is still a long way from passing. There hasn’t even been a hearing yet, let alone a bill to debate. But even at this early stage of the new push by Congress and the White House for comprehensive legislation, the major players are already subtly positioning themselves for credit if their efforts succeed and to avoid blame if they fail.
Claiming credit for immigration reform is a particularly dicey proposition for the Republican Party, which has made nativist appeals to immigration fears a central part of its political gameplan for years. But that’s not stopping them.
The RNC, for example, put out a research file on Tuesday arguing that President Obama is disinterested in immigration reform, an extension of similar attacks during the presidential campaign. The latest entry is titled “A Hard Pill To Swallow: Obama’s Actual Record On Immigration Reform Has Been Nothing More Than Partisanship And Inaction” and accuses Obama of deliberately killing past reform efforts.
Among other charges, the file claims Obama backed labor-supported amendments in the 2007 reform push that they say killed a deal (pro-labor Democrats actually ended up voting against the bill anyway, along with border hawk Republicans). It also jabs at Obama for not introducing a comprehensive reform bill in his first term. Obama did get some criticism from Latino groups for not pushing harder for a bill at the time. But there’s not a lot of mystery as to why the effort stalled. The White House was involved in negotiations with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on the issue, but he dropped out and left Democrats short of the 60 votes needed to pass a bill in the Senate. Later a far more modest bill, the DREAM Act, died after a GOP-led filibuster that included Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).
But the RNC’s broader angle here is that immigration reform is coming only because the Republicans are leading the charge against a weak-willed White House, rather than merely acquiescing to longtime demands from Obama, Latino groups, and business interests for a bill.
A corollary of this line of thinking is the frequent conservative talking point that Obama wants immigration reform to fail to make Republicans look bad. This is an important insurance policy for the national GOP if things go sour.
“I don’t know if President Obama wants to solve these problems,” Bill O’Reilly told Marco Rubio while interviewing him this month. “I think he wants to destroy the Republican Party, particularly in the eyes of Hispanic American voters. So he’s going to make it as hard as possible to get anything done and demonize you guys.”
For the GOP, there’s also a strong interest in elevating Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) as the moderate problem solver who broke through the partisan gridlock on the issue ahead of a 2016 presidential run. A Wall Street Journal interview with Rubio, for example, hailed the senator as a bold conservative corrective to the “blanket amnesty crowd” even as he advocated for reforms largely in line with Obama’s longtime stated agenda. O’Reilly made similar points on his show, suggesting that Rubio’s arguments sounded “pretty fair.” O’Reilly also urged Rubio to “get on the phone” with Obama “and get this thing so it doesn’t turn into a bloody mess.”
You might also see shades of this dynamic in the dueling blueprints for reform this week from the Senate and White House. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) actively encouraged Obama to take a lead role in the process, while Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) urged the president to get out of the Senate’s way. The more the White House is involved, the more a successful bill will be portrayed as an Obama victory — rather than a bipartisan Senate effort — if it passes.
On the flipside, Democrats have an interest in minimizing Rubio’s role which, as the most popular national lawmaker with tea party credibility backing reform, may end up being highly significant in passing a bill. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who knows a thing or two about national politics, went out of his way to lavish praise on Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) as the driver of their bipartisan agreement on Monday.
“His wisdom, his strength, his courage, his steadfastness and many other adjectives that I’ll skip at the moment, have really been inspiring to me and, I think, to all of us,” Schumer said, calling him “the glue” behind their coalition.
As the architect of the failed 2007 immigration bill, the senator from Arizona is by all accounts the party’s point man on the issue in the Senate. But McCain, who is in the twilight of his career and has a complicated relationship with the GOP base, is a much safer storage space for credit if you’re a Democrat worried about winning the presidency in 2016. You can only expect to see these kinds of subtle asides grow louder if the negotiation process moves closer to success.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.