Fred Barnes and Linda Chavez have written many smart things over the years. Their recent arguments that this week’s defeat of the immigration bill in the Senate will do political harm to the Republicans don’t measure up to their usual efforts. The key problem for both of them is that in a two-party nation, congressional politics will always be a zero-sum game. Whatever helps the Democrats hurts the Republicans, and vice versa.
Chavez and Barnes call the decisive cloture vote against the immigration bill a self-inflicted wound for the Republicans. That opinion is, to put it generously, difficult to square with the fact that one-third of the Democrats voted against cloture. If they thought the bill was a political winner, why would they jump off the train rather than seize the opportunity to claim credit for themselves and their party? As Michael Barone pointed out, 24 of the 33 senators who have to run for re-election next year opposed cloture. Among senators who won’t face the voters again until 2010 or 2012, 37 out of 56 voted for it. The fact that the politicians most concerned about popular sentiment were least likely to help the immigration bill casts doubt on the idea that Republicans will “find themselves sitting on the back benches for years to come,” in Chavez’s phrase, because they passed up this golden opportunity.
According to Barnes, “For Democrats, the failure of immigration reform is a twofer. Democrats are likely now to begin to solidify their hold on the Hispanic vote. And their House members in rural and conservative districts have been spared a risky vote in favor of immigration reform.” Do you see the zero-sum problem here? Barnes is saying that the Democrats are going to win Hispanic votes by stressing their support for the immigration bill, the same one that’s going to lose votes for them in rural and conservative districts. It’s not that both can’t be true, exactly, but that they can’t be true in the same direction. If the Democrats have more Hispanic votes to gain than rural votes to lose by supporting the immigration bill, the raw political calculation would be to support it. And if not, not. But there can’t be a net gain for the Democrats if they support the bill, and also a net gain if they oppose it.
Barnes says that while “opposition to the bill may aid individual senators, it clearly undercuts Republican efforts to capture the Hispanic vote.” Fred, they’re all individual senators and representatives, and none of them got elected without having a pretty good idea of how to assess political risks and rewards. Their professional judgment that supporting the immigration bill would increase the likelihood that their careers would be moving into a post-congressional phase deserves respect. So does their understanding that the party that wins the most individual races in 2008 will have a congressional majority in 2009. Vying for the loyalty of a particular voting bloc is not some collateral effort that benefits either party, except insofar as it manifests itself in all of those individual elections.