Post-Mortem: Immigration Policy Lost in Politics

DC Politics Immigration Reform
2008 Electoral Map

New Orleans The headline writers had it easy last night.  All they had to do was figure out different ways to say that the Republicans kicked Democrat butt last night, and, oh, yeah, don’t kid yourself, this was a referendum on the Obama presidency and politics, and voters were not happy campers on the economy.  Obama said that he can see several issues where there might be common ground with the Republicans to still move forward.

One of these issues was immigration.  Anyone believe that?   Please stand on your head and hold your breath.  This is all politics and no policy!

This is a minefield for both parties and for the President himself, and the risk of real legislation is higher than the advantages of simply playing “blame-the-other-guy” politics.  In looking at the 2012 election it is hard to see a single state that tilts decidedly one way or another on real reform.

Some might say, well, how about Nevada, and the narrow victory for Harry Reid in the Senate and the arguably role of Latino voters impressed with Reid’s sudden activism on this issue?  It’s just not enough to tilt.

There are only four states, all of which are in the West, where Latino voters might be pivotal:  Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico.  Nevada and New Mexico both went for Obama in 2008, but each are tiny in the scale of things with only 5 electoral votes each.  Colorado has 9, but immigration turns that state less than green and resource issues, ag, and education.  Arizona would be the biggest prize of this small litter with 10 electoral votes, but here the story goes bad.  Governor Brewer rode a regressive, anti-immigrant bill, which was declared unconstitutional before the election to a smashing defeat of a solid progressive Attorney General with a long history in the state and a deep base.  All of this despite her brain freeze in the first debate and the hard to shake impression that she was more tea than party.  The lesson strategists from both parties will take from Arizona is that anti-immigrant politics is a huge vote getter for the here and now, and the here and now is all that politicians care about on a two-year election drill in the red zone to the White House.

The big fights for Obama’s re-election are in the Midwest to hold onto Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana and in the East with Pennsylvania.  There will be a campaign in Florida, but the politics are murky and his prospects are dim given his commitment to allowing the banks to manage and mangle foreclosures and the real estate market, so I think he will cede this one to the Republicans.  Obama’s strategists are bound to argue that if he holds onto his base in the Midwest and doesn’t do anything to lose the traditional West Coast and East Coast support, he gets a 2nd term.

Immigration is not battleground issue in any of must-win states.  It’s all economy, all the time.

Obama and the Democrats do better in the next two years by arguing for a modestly “humanist” (not progressive) immigration reform policy and playing defense against whacko-Republican anti-immigrant bills sufficiently to hold the electoral edge among Latinos.  The Republicans have no way to align their caucus for an immigration package that works.  This will all be about “messaging” and politics for the future and nothing about policy for the interim.

Immigration will be about some sizzle, while both parties try to fry much, much bigger fish.