Even before the shutdown crisis was over, President Obama was already making it clear that his next priority was going to be immigration reform. So can it actually happen? Right after the 2012 election, one Republican after another was saying that if reform didn't pass, their party was all but doomed, since they'd be blamed for stopping it. The country's largest minority group would be driven even further away from them as a result. You might think that after the political disaster of the shutdown, Republicans would be even more eager to find something, anything that would improve their party's image.
But maybe not. Over the weekend, Marco Rubio said that Republicans wouldn't allow immigration reform to pass because Obama was super-mean during the shutdown. "The president has undermined this effort, absolutely, because of the way he has behaved over the last three weeks." Rubio's not the only one with hurt feelings. "It's not going to happen this year," said Representative Raul Labrador from Idaho. "After the way the president acted over the last two or three weeks where he would refuse to talk to the Speaker of the House ... they're not going to get immigration reform. That's done."
OK then. The thing is, even if Obama were sure there was next to no chance of succeeding in passing reform, there are few things he could spend time talking about over the next few months that would do more damage to his opponents. Think about it this way: What's the GOP's biggest problem right now? It's the widespread perception that they're a bunch of extremists who are willing to throw sand in the gears of the political system to fight anything Barack Obama wants to do, no matter the damage to everyone else, and even the sane people in the party don't have the courage to stand up to Tea Party nuts. And what happens if we have a debate about immigration?
Well, you'd see a lot of establishment Republicans saying, "This is something we really should do." And then you'd have a bunch of conservative Republicans saying, "No, no, no!" and making outlandish demands. And I'd rate the chances at somewhere around 99 percent that along the way some of those Tea Partiers will say some ugly things about immigrants that get lots of attention and cause Karl Rove and the rest of the national Republican establishment no end of agita.
So look for Democrats to repeat at every available opportunity that this is just like the shutdown all over again: people in both parties know the right thing to do, but the GOP has been captured by its crazy right wing who won't let them. "We had a very strong Democratic and Republican vote in the Senate," Obama said in an interview last week with Univision. "The only thing right now that’s holding it back is, again, Speaker Boehner not willing to call the bill on the floor of the House of Representatives." He was talking not about the shutdown, but about immigration.
I don't have any special insight into whether a comprehensive immigration reform could actually pass (Gabriel Arana evaluated this comprehensively a month ago, and concluded, "It might be unsatisfying, but the real answer is, who knows?"). But Republicans are certainly caught between a rock and a hard place here. If Obama pushes immigration reform, their base will be dead-set against it, not only because it's Obama, but because they fear being overrun by immigrants who will alter their country in ways they'll hate (don't ever underestimate the motivating force the fear of change has for the older white people who make up the GOP's base). But if Republicans kill reform, not only will they look, once again, like recalcitrant extremists, they'll give Hispanics another in a long line of reminders that the party is not too fond of them. If Obama can string a few of these sorts of issues together, he might be able to ride all the way to the 2014 midterm elections with the political landscape pretty much the way it is now.