Lessons From the Health Care Debate For The Looming Immigration Debate

by Douglas Rivlin on December 23, 2009

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

The legislative process is messy, with many ups and downs along the way if any significant or even incremental change is to be made against the (almost) immoveable forces arrayed against progress in Washington.  As the health care reform effort moves closer to the end game that will now likely result in a bill signing at the White House, those progressives gearing up for the fight for comprehensive immigration reform – by most accounts one of the next major issues on the national agenda – should take careful notes. 

In the wee hours of Monday morning, the Senate voted along partisan lines to end the filibuster against the current phase of debate over a compromise health care bill and move it towards the next steps in the legislative process.  The right is unified against the President and wants to derail any bill.  The left is conflicted between a flawed compromise that, depending on who you listen to, accomplishes some but not all (or even many) of the original goals of embarking on the reform effort in the first place.  On TV, the blogs, and the Twitterverse, opinion on the left is wide ranging, with some embracing incremental change, some disappointed with goals unachieved, and others feeling they have been sold down the river with a compromise worse than the status quo.  We are not even at the end game and the coalition supporting change is fraying, but has not yet splintered (as the cloture vote confirms).

The light is now visible at the end of the health care reform tunnel, although many twists and turns in the journey remain.  By most accounts, the list of major legislative issues to be addressed after health care is resolved includes broad immigration reform.  Last week, the opening bid in the coming effort was put on the table, a bill drafted by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and introduced with more than 90 Democrats from the Black, Asian-Pacific, Hispanic, and Progressive caucuses in the House.  There will be many other bills and proposals introduced in the coming weeks, not least of which a Senate bill being crafted by Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and rumors of several other House and Senate efforts.

Here are some of the lessons pro-immigration reform forces would be wise to keep in mind if and when immigration reform moves forward:

You will think everything is lost 12 times along the way and be wrong: On health care, only a week ago – and throughout the last several months – there were moments when all seemed lost.  The onslaught of lunacy and outright lies that exploded at the Town Halls in August will pale in comparison to what is in store from the opponents of immigration reform.  In the last weeks, moneyed interests in health care have steered the debate away from a public option and may be successful, and yet the movement forward has continued and we are on the verge of cracking the armor of inertia that has prevented any change on health care for 60 years.
On immigration, the fight has lasted at least 20 years and the inertia – and outright hostility to legal immigration – is formidable.  Already, fear and a loss of hope are cropping up.  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is lowering expectations that immigration reform will be on the House agenda, pointing to a Senate-first strategy as the only way immigration will move (link).  But those who see immigration reform as already DOA are wrong and will be wrong for many months to come.  Take a breath, chill, fight and organize and let someone else throw in the towel, when and if that becomes necessary.

Pundits and the media will focus on the wrong battles and miss the real story: Conventional wisdom will overstate the power of those opposed to ANY change and understate the differences between those allied FOR change:  The chattering punditry of conventional wisdom shapers have a lot of TV, radio, Internet and newspaper space to fill, and will do so whether they understand the actual pulse of the American electorate or the dynamics of our dysfunctional Legislature or not.  Out of convenience, expedience or laziness, they tend to magnify the strength of the most vocal, passionate, and photogenic protagonists, whether they are actually powerful protagonists or not.

On health care, the weakened power of base Republican activists has received way too much attention, while the quiet, workmanlike efforts of the health insurance industry and their impact on Congress have been underreported.  The same will happen on immigration.
Opposition to immigration reform is loud but not nearly as large as it sounds.  Groups like NumbersUSA, FAIR, and ALIPAC – that are opposed to legal immigration but have seized on illegal immigration as a target of opportunity – are joined by allies who share an interest in defeating Democrats – the Republican Party, Tea partiers, and big-money conservative donors – and have the liability of a hard-core fringe of genuine nativists who drag them to the margins of acceptable politics.  But the Minutemen and Teabaggers showed us that if you make noise, say outrageous things, and manufacture outrage, they (the media and pundits) will come, regardless of your ability to spell or your truthiness.

However, that coalition of opponents to any change is not nearly as politically potent as the coalition that will fight for immigration reform.  The proponents of immigration reform extend well beyond the Latino, immigrant, or Asian communities that are perceived as the driving forces (and which are hugely significant in their own right).  Faith, labor, business, civil rights, and progressive advocacy organizations are deeply engaged and as a coalition command a lot of power.  Furthermore, those who accurately grasp the political power of the immigration issue to forge a new and long lasting base of power for the Democrats in key states want to win this issue – or at least want to give Republicans enough rope to hang themselves by opposing reform and frankly, opposing immigration and the aspirations of immigrants and their broader ethnic communities.

Labor and business have deep pockets and their goals in reform are different but can be reconciled with each other and with the broader coalition.  This will be extraordinarily difficult, especially as we get closer to actual bills and actual votes that matter in either house.  More important are the splits within business and the splits within labor that could bust apart the coalition along the way.  This is where the critical make or break deals and compromises will either fly or fail.  They will not get much attention because they will not happen in the open, so almost all of the noise reported in the media will therefore be mostly irrelevant to what is actually happening.

Make the right choice when it comes to Democratic unity vs. bipartisanship: In health care, there was way too much energy spent attracting Republican votes that were never – and would never be – there.  Two moderate, pseudo-renegades in the entire Republican Caucus ever took the opportunity to put country above Party and vote with the Democrats.  The tougher job of addressing the great oxymoron of Democratic unity turned out to be much more important.

Alas, the opposite is true of immigration.  Democratic unity is unachievable.  On the right, Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), wheeled to the floor in the dead of night to vote for cloture on health care, will probably never support an immigration reform bill also supported by members of the Democratic Caucus.  On the left, a Senator like Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who begrudgingly voted for cloture on health care despite losing on key aspects of the compromise, will be a very hard vote to get for politically viable immigration reform.

Unlike health care reform, moving immigration will require at least a dozen House and Senate Republican votes to make up for at least a dozen House and Senate Democrats who will not hold ranks with their Party.  The question is whether there is enough common ground to forge a compromise that keeps things moving forward and whether a slightly fractured Democratic Caucus can make up the difference with a few renegades from a much less fractured Republican Caucus.  I think so, but focusing too much on Democratic unity – like focusing too much on bipartisanship for health care – could derail things.

Conclusion: Health care reform and immigration reform are very different issues but they each have the potential to move forward in the current political environment.  Having apparently opened a small crack in Washington’s rock-solid inertia, will the President and the Democrats decide they have had enough? Will they seek a 2010 of “safe votes” and political wedging over an aggressive agenda to make the first two years of the Obama Administration monumental and change the game for the next elections?  Democrats are not known for seizing on political moments to snatch victory from defeat, but one can hope and pray that the momentum created by health care reform gives them a jolt of adrenaline and that they have the confidence that they are correct and hold popular positions and can change the country they lead.

Link = http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/nation/stories/DN-texwatch_20nat.ART.State.Edition1.4c38587.html
Cross posted at: http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2009/12/21/817646/-Lessons-from-health-care-for-immigration-reform

Previous post:

Next post: