Can Obama use immigration to tease the Tea Party into defeat?
After saving Obamacare, the President throws down the gauntlet for a repeat performance
HAS President Obama spotted his chance to slay the dragon of the Republican Party’s extreme right?
From the outside, the story of the Washington debacle which last week threatened to see America default on its debts was about the threat to the global economy, and that threat has not gone away.
The 11th hour deal to which the Republican hardliners caved simply bought some time: the budget deal and debt ceiling both expire in the New Year, so the whole barking mad dog fight can start again.
But one issue was settled: Obamacare, the Affordable Health Act. The Tea Party right was all along playing chicken in a bid to strong-arm Obama into sabotaging his own “signature” health legislation.
They failed of course, and now Obama has thrown down the gauntlet for a repeat performance. On the very morning the Republicans caved he told the House that it was time to get on with reforming immigration law.
The initiative was spun by the White House as being inspired by the President’s desire to take advantage of a “bi-partisan moment” in Washington politics. Nice try, but nonsense.
Obama always wants to be seen as the reasonable man hovering above the fray, puzzled by the appalling behaviour of the children in the Capitol Hill playground. In a way, he is. Indeed, his reluctance to descend to the dirty business of Washington politics is increasingly seen as his weakness.
Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist, wrote this weekend: “When sweet reasonableness doesn’t work, Obama’s default position is didactic disdain. He under-uses the fear and charm cards.”
Perhaps he is working on the fear factor at last.
Tomorrow, 300 more traditional Republican conservatives, including the Evangelicals who not so long ago were considered the conservative hardliners, will fly into Washington to lobby for an Immigration Bill.
There is no secret to this: migrant labour is cheap labour and beloved of the Republican business and farm lobbies.
What both moderate Republicans and Democrats want is what they were offered by the Senate earlier this year: a bill which combines tougher border controls balanced against a “path” to citizenship for the 11 million “undocumented” immigrants already in the country, the vast majority from Mexico and South America.
But the bill produced by the Senate was flatly rejected by the same Tea Party caucus that was ready to unleash economic mayhem to kill Obamacare.
That is why Obama and his political team see a golden opportunity.
Opinion polls show that the debt ceiling cliffhanger has brought support for the Republicans down to an unheard-of 20 per cent.
The Republican Party is desperate for an issue which shows them in a different light: if they can play nice on immigration, offering the American Dream to the innocent children of illegal immigrants, making rational compromises with Democrat senators, they may restore their appeal to centrist Americans.
“When the Republican polling numbers are at 20 per cent, there’s a pretty strong argument to do something to get those poll numbers up, and immigration is a good way to do that,” said Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York.
Why immigration law in particular? Because Mitt Romney was trounced by Obama in the last presidential election on the Hispanic vote.
Romney called for voluntary repatriation and banning kids of illegal immigrants from schools. But as he learned to his cost, the demographics of America are changing: the Hispanic vote, sometimes known here as the 'brown vote', will increasingly be the deciding factor, and the Tea Party right has made very sure that vote is more or less 100 per cent Democrat.
It is not in the Democrats’ interests to let the Republicans adopt Hispanic-friendly immigration reform as their own.
So, Obama and his Democrat senators will promote bills which attract the brown vote, tempting the still powerful Tea Party caucus in the House to use all its tricks to block them.
Thus immigration reform will take the place of Obamacare when the next round of fiscal deadlines comes up in January, with the Republicans once again securely to blame.
Landslide defeats of Republicans in the midterm elections next November would increase the Democrats' majority in the Senate and could even give them the House.
The next President in 2016 would almost certainly be a Democrat. No wonder Obama is sharpening his lance for the kill. ·