Over the course of this year's immigration debate, we've come to view the Republican party division as follows. On one side, advocating for comprehensive immigration reform, you have a group that is sometimes called "the establishment" or "the elite," made up of people whose primary interest is in the party's long-term national prospects. These are the big money people, the top consultants, some senators, and so on. On the other side, opposing comprehensive reform, you have "the base," which is not only voters but also members of the House with a narrow interest in getting re-elected, usually by appealing to extremely conservative constituencies. On that side you also have some conservative media figures and others with strong ideological motivations against immigration reform. And then caught in the middle you've got the Republican congressional leadership, which can't afford to antagonize the base but also worries about the effect killing immigration reform will have on the party.
But we may be reaching the point where these categories are no longer adequate to describe what's going on within the GOP. This morning, William Kristol and Rich Lowry, the editors of the two most important conservative magazines (the Weekly Standard and National Review) joined together to write an unusual joint editorial titled "Kill the Bill," coming down in opposition to the "Gang of Eight" immigration bill that passed the Senate. The substance of their argument is familiar to anyone following this debate—the Obama administration can't be trusted, it won't stop all future illegal immigration, the bill is too long—but the substance isn't really important. What's important is that these two figures, about as establishment as establishment gets, are siding firmly with the anti-reform side.
Those of us who have been around for a while can't help but be reminded of a memo Kristol wrote to Republicans 20 years ago, when Bill Clinton was trying to enact health-care reform. It argued that from a substantive and political point of view, Republicans should not try to negotiate with the Clinton administration or work with them to pass a reform that was as conservative as possible; instead, they should wage all-out war to kill it. "The plan should not be amended," Kristol wrote, "it should be erased."
Politically speaking, it was good advice; Republicans followed it, and they won. Sixteen years later they used the same strategy during the debate over the Affordable Care Act, and they lost.11 It turned out, however, that conservative Democrats like Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman did the Republicans' substantive work for them, extracting a number of concessions from the administration that moved the bill in a more conservative direction. There's a difference in this debate, however. Those two efforts at health care reform were always understood as a conflict between a Democratic administration seeking a longtime Democratic goal, and Republicans in Congress trying to stop them. It was reported like a sporting event: Clinton loses, Republicans win; Obama wins, Republicans lose. Immigration, on the other hand, has been reported largely as a battle within the Republican party. President Obama, knowing full well that anything he advocates immediately becomes toxic for most Republicans, has been using a lighter touch when it comes to public advocacy for comprehensive reform.22 I'm not saying he hasn't been pushing for it, but he hasn't done the all-out, campaign-style barnstorming tour that would help turn it into a purely Democrats-versus-Republicans issue. The story has always been, "What will the Republicans do?" and if reform goes down, the headlines won't read, "Obama Defeated on Immigration Reform," they'll read, "Republicans Kill Immigration Reform," with subheadings like "Danger ahead for GOP as Latino voters react."
I once knew a professor who would say to his students, "Institutions don't speak. People speak." His point was that we often ascribe a unified intelligence or will to things like the government or a corporation or a political party, glossing over the fact that it's individuals making those decisions and statements. There may be a single most beneficial path for the Republican party to take, but the Republican party can't just decide to choose it. A party is made up of lots of individuals, each with their own opinions, self-interest, and levers of influence, who will push it in one direction or another. With Kristol and Lowry coming out in opposition to reform (and perhaps other people like them to follow), it may no longer even be possible to say that the party establishment has a single position on the issue.