Issac Bailey: John Boehner's decision to kill bipartisan immigration reform legislation may prove fateful in election
He says if Latinos help Hillary Clinton win, Republicans will have themselves to blame
Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey has been a journalist in South Carolina for two decades and was most recently the primary columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The views expressed are his own.
Before the final votes are counted in races that will determine the presidency and control of the US Senate, let us reflect on the single decision by the former Speaker of the House John Boehner that more than any other may have shaped the contours of this election.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is said to be a smart man, but he wasn’t smart enough to see that by standing behind the GOP presidential nominee, a man Ryan says he’s already voted for, he was doubling down on a colossal mistake made by his predecessor.
This mistake is among the reasons Hispanics may provide the decisive bloc of votes (the Hispanic vote is up by more than 100% in early voting in some states) that will put a Democrat back in the White House and hasten the civil war already brewing within the Republican Party.
Just over two years ago, the US Senate passed what some described as “the most monumental overhaul of US immigration law in generations” on a bipartisan 68-32 vote.
It included more money for border security, which would have increased an already unprecedented level of personnel on the US-Mexican border, and an onerous 13-year path to citizenship that would have required the undocumented to jump through all sorts of hoops and pay back taxes. There was nothing like amnesty about it. Immigration advocates and experts embraced it the way many on the left greeted health care reform, accepting that it was a good start despite the flaws inherent in every legislative compromise.
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It was ushered through by a rising star in the Republican Party, Marco Rubio, who spent a considerable amount of his personal political capital by taking on the hard right of his party – including advocating for the bill in such immigration hostile venues as the Rush Limbaugh show – and (briefly) looked like the kind of 21st century leader the Republican Party would be eager to show off in the 2016 election cycle.
President Barack Obama, who had spent years beefing up security forces along our much-discussed border with Mexico and keeping up a brisk pace of deportations to help make political space for an immigration compromise (similar to the tactics he used to end “don’t ask, don’t tell”), was eager to sign that bill into law.
But something happened that prevented Obama from completing another historic domestic legislative achievement. Then-Speaker Boehner balked, refusing to bring the bill to the floor in the House, where he knew that a majority of Republicans would vote against it, even though combined with Democratic support it could pass anyway.
Boehner, a sensible politician, knew it was a sensible plan. He also knew that such a reform bill could either end the immigration headache that helped sink the GOP’s 2012 nominee, Mitt “Self-Deport” Romney, or even broaden the party’s base because Republicans could then credibly argue they were serious about the compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush. Not only that, they could go to struggling white and black voters and explain why such reform was good for them also.
Bringing the undocumented out of the shadows would have put upward pressure on wages at the bottom of the economic scale, which would have been good for the undocumented and American-born citizens struggling on the margins.
There was a potentially enormous upside for the GOP, including launching Rubio into the 2016 presidential race as the ideal standard bearer for a party desperate to find a way to confront a demographic shift that threatens to turn it into a regional, no longer national force.
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Republican Party leaders were well aware of this and laid it out in painstaking detail in its 2012 autopsy. All they had to do was pull the trigger on a no-brainer piece of legislation. The Republican senators in now hotly contested races that they might lose saw the writing on the wall and advocated for the bill.
Instead of following their lead, or even his own conscience, Boehner sided with the most unreasonable factions of the GOP, the politicians who convinced their supporters it was possible, for instance, to repeal Obamacare while a guy named Obama was still in the White House.
That decision, maybe like no other, helped usher in a 2016 GOP presidential nominee – by legitimizing irrationality and bigotry and nativism – who spent the primaries talking about building walls and a deportation force and thinking fondly of the “Operation Wetback” era but flipped to (sort of) embracing the bipartisan immigration reform bill Boehner unwisely passed on.
Instead of the nomination of Rubio – a candidate uniquely suited to help the Republican Party compete in a browning America: a young, talented, Hispanic with a compelling back story – the party has the worst of all worlds.
It has a nominee who uses bigotry as a negotiation tactic, a base exposed as having no moral compass or set of principles it wouldn’t sacrifice for him, and yet another speaker of the House who is saddled by an unmitigated political mess he might not be able to clean up after Tuesday because he chose to be led instead of leading.
It will be fitting that the group of voters Boehner and Ryan decided was less important than party loyalty could be what finally forces a long overdue Republican reckoning.