36,110 Republican Party primary voters in a single congressional district in Virginia have, apparently, ended the prospect of enacting comprehensive immigration reform this year, denying 11 million undocumented immigrants the opportunity to come out of the shadows. At least, that is the immediate takeaway from most political commentators on both the left and the right in the wake of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning primary loss to upstart political neophyte David Brat.
It is not at all clear why the dire consequence for immigration reform from Cantor’s loss is now seen as predictable, when it appears that Cantor had been neglecting his district for some time and that this neglect, as much as any one issue, led to his defeat. Additionally, last night South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, who already voted for comprehensive immigration reform when it passed the Senate, handily won his GOP primary contest with more than 56% of the vote in a crowded field. But, the Senate-passed bill, which has enough votes to pass the House, can only pass if the GOP House leadership decides to bring it up for a vote. Speaker of the House John Boehner is widely perceived as a good guy, the kind of guy you would want to grab a beer with, but he has not exactly been a profile in courage during his tenure as Speaker. One hopes that Cantor is so angry he will encourage Boehner to bring the bill to the floor, but that seems a faint hope. The more likely scenario is that Boehner will now view the issue as even more divisive for his party than he did on Monday, and let it die a quiet death.
There is no shortage of voices on the right urging just such a course. Last night, I watched Fox News to see how Cantor’s defeat was being interpreted. Long gone were the musings after the 2012 election, when presidential candidate Mitt Romney managed to get a mere 27% of the Latino vote, about the GOP needing to strike a deal on immigration reform. Instead, commentator after commentator said that immigration reform was a decisive issue for the GOP, and opposing reform was a winner for the GOP. They tend to call immigration reform “amnesty” at Fox, even though the heavy fines an undocumented immigrant would have to pay make the word at best imprecise. Nor were the talking heads dissuaded by the multiple polls that indicate a significant majority of Americans, as much as two-thirds, support a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented.
The most horrifying analysis came from Laura Ingraham, who has long been a softer voice on many issues than some on the right, but whose intransigent opposition to immigration reform has become her calling card in recent months. Ms. Ingraham, best known in Catholic circles as a frequent guest of, and co-author of a book with, EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo, said that while opposition to illegal immigration was the most obvious issue that led to Cantor’s defeat, the voters were really telling the Washington Establishment that they are anxious, that the middle class feels economically insecure and that Washington seems unable or unwilling to do anything about it, that the opposition to immigration reform was a symptom of this bigger problem. Ingraham did not explain how the concern about immigration related to the issue of stagnant wages for middle class Americans, and at Fox, the hosts seem disinclined to ask the obvious follow-up. Middle class wages have been stagnant for 30 years. Passing immigration reform will have a negligible effect. What is the connection? It is obvious, no?
The GOP has precious little in the way of policy ideas to help poor and middle class Americans. And, when one sees a problem and lacks the ideas to confront it, there is always an easy political tactic at hand: Find a scapegoat. If middle class wages are stagnant and the cost-of-living continues to rise, and the cost of a college education to skyrocket, and you can’t think of a way to change that, why not blame those brown people clamoring to share the American Dream! Ann Coulter joined Ingraham in the anti-immigrant pig pile, noting several times that opposing immigration reform plays well with African-American voters, noting that Mitt Romney garnered 20 percent of the vote from African-American men in 2012. I suspect that President Obama’s support for same sex marriage had more to do with Romney’s surprisingly strong showing with black men, but Coulter seemed convinced the issue that drove them to Romney was immigration. And, distressingly, she did not seem to think there was anything particularly dangerous about pitting one ethnic group against another for political gain.
Professor Brat, the giant slayer of the moment, gave two long interviews on the phone with Fox’s Sean Hannity. He is an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College and it showed. He said he campaigned on support for the free market, for property rights, for the Constitution, especially the 10th amendment, and the rule of law. Of course, so far as one can tell, Mr. Cantor is not hostile to the free market, nor to property rights, nor to the Constitution, nor to the 10th amendment, nor to the rule of law. But, this list of things to be for is a kind of libertarian code these days, a magical invocation of a supposedly more pristine time when robber barons were free to do as they pleased without concern about messy, demanding government regulations, when the 14th amendment had not yet applied the Bill of Rights to the states, when property rights were on the books and workers’ rights not yet imagined. When these libertarian tendencies were most pronounced in U.S. political history, the consequences for society were dire indeed. Yet, that is world Mr. Brat aspires to bring the nation to embrace again. He sounded like rancher Cliven Bundy with a degree in economics. I shudder. I shudder doubly because Professor Brat is a Catholic!
As mentioned, there is really only one person standing in the way of a comprehensive immigration bill being passed and that person is Speaker Boehner. He cannot relish the prospect of a rejuvenated Tea Party base, and people were speculating before last night’s results that he might lay down his gavel at the end of this term. He has a definite out on immigration now: If anyone complains, Boehner can say: “Look at what happened to Cantor.” Let us hope that his meeting with Catholic bishops two weeks ago will have pricked his conscience, but after 34 years in Washington, I have not seen many politicians allow their consciences to be pricked. The easy path is almost always the path that is chosen by a political class that has been emasculated by the modern art of campaigning, terrified by the power of the talk-radio ranters, and beholden to special interest lobbyists for their dinner. It has long been unseemly but now, if it is permitted to bring real, actual harm to 11 million people who want nothing but a better lives for their families, it is difficult for me to hold much hope that government in our time can be a force for good again. The right needs a scapegoat. The left gets a campaign issue back. Who has time to worry about the undocumented who will be made to suffer? It is a depressing day, in danger of becoming a depressing epoch.