In the wake of the defeat of gun control legislation, lots of DC-insiders are speculating that immigration reform will meet the same fate. The president doesn't have the juice, they say, to muscle any sort of significant, complex legislation through Congress. That may or may not be true. But, what is clear is that if Obama wants a victory on immigration, he's got to step away from the bully pulpit instead of spending all of his time behind it.
One of the major reasons that gun control failed was President Obama's attachment to it. To be sure, red state Democrats and most Republicans are historically loathe to support any legislation that smacks of restricting gun rights. That said, voting for a background check bill was not as problematic as voting for a bill that was embraced by President Obama. This chart by Pew Research Center illustrates just how toxic the Obama brand is on this issue. From 1995 until 2008, large majorities of Americans supported gun control over "gun rights." In April of 2009, support for gun control dropped to 49 percent and support of gun rights jumped to 45 percent. There was no event involving guns or violence that could explain this major change of opinion. The one thing that did change: President Obama replaced President Bush. Attack ads on the legislation will be focused less on "taking away our guns" and more on the fact that the Member voted "for Barack Obama's gun bill."
While many liberal Democrats have taken to flogging red state Democrats like North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp and Montana's Max Baucus for voting against the background check legislation, the bill didn't lose because red state Democrats abandoned him. It lost because he couldn't get enough Republicans to support him. The president needed a Republican - one who had the trust and respect of conservative elements in the party, to help sell the bill. Despite the fact that he once headed the conservative Club for Growth, Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey doesn't have the clout with his conference. More telling is the fact that the support of the 2008 nominee for president, John McCain, brought along zero Republicans.
This is why Republicans, and the president are so invested in Marco Rubio and immigration reform. Unlike gun control, the White House has pretty much stayed out of the public debate - letting Rubio, a beloved figure across all segments of the GOP base, take the lead in selling the legislation to a skeptical conservative audience. He also has the support of establishment Republicans who understand the importance of the immigration issue to Latino as well as younger voters and women.
Said one GOP strategist, "Republicans need to get on the 'right' side of immigration, and not just to appeal to Latinos... Younger voters and some segments of the women's vote also see immigration reform as a compassion issue and feel like Republicans are out of touch on it."
But, how does the Republican establishment, a brand almost as toxic as Obama among big segments of the GOP base, help support Republican efforts on reform?
One avenue is the one taken by the Mark Zuckerberg-backed Americans for a Conservative Direction. Staffed with Republican blue-chip advisors like former Gov. Haley Barbour, ex-Jeb Bush advisor Sally Bradshaw and former NRSC executive director Rob Jesmer, the group released this ad featuring Rubio's defense of the legislation on a recent TV appearance. The ad is far from subtle. It hits hard on issues like border enforcement. And no government "giveaways for lawbreakers."
But, will a well-funded grass-tops effort like this - initial reports say the group is making a seven-figure buy to run the ad in Florida, Texas, Utah, North Carolina, Iowa and Kentucky - be able to sway skeptical GOP lawmakers? Can it protect the "Rubio-brand" from being tarnished by the rough-and-tumble legislative process? Can it help counter the efforts of conservative talk radio to quash the Gang of Eight plan? The National Review's Robert Costa shadowed Rubio last week and found that while the Florida Senator has the respect of well-known conservative talkers like Rush Limbaugh, the "talk-radio crowd — remain skeptical. 'I must tell you, I just don’t understand this, Senator,' Rush Limbaugh told Rubio last week. 'I don’t understand why we’re doing something that the Democrats are salivating over.' That kind of wariness is feeding broader unease. also been clear over the last week that he has yet to win them over on the issue."
Winning over folks like Rush, said one GOPer involved in the effort to pass the Gang of Eight plan, is not the goal. "We can't change opinion'" said this strategist, "but we can fight to a draw." In other words, the expectation is not to get the Rush-types to embrace it - they just can't afford to have them actively and aggressively trashing it.
But, said another GOP operative, getting the GOP base to buy into immigration reform "requires a more nuanced and indirect approach." "Running ads defending a Republican's vote for immigration reform," he said, "could cause more problems than it solves in a primary."
This is why you are more likely to see ads like this one on that Americans for Conservative Direction put up on behalf of Sen. Lindsey Graham. Although this ad is sponsored by the Zuckerberg group, and Graham is a member of the Gang of Eight, it never mentions immigration reform. Instead, it ticks through all the ways that Graham has taken on President Obama and his agenda. The goal is to let GOP members know that they have an ally to help burnish their conservative bonafides in a way that helps - not hurts them among the GOP base.
Another Republican who has been heavily involved in independent expenditure efforts over the years says that, while it will be "good for Members to know the big money people are interested," he's not sure that it will have much impact on getting votes for a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
At the end of the day, however, it's clear that Republicans can not afford to do nothing on this issue. While it is true that Latinos have never been a reliable chunk of voters for the GOP (since 1976, Republican presidential candidates have never received more than 40 percent of the vote), the reality is that the non-white population of this country is growing rapidly, even without an influx of the estimated eleven million immigrants that are here illegally. To ignore this reality is to whistle past the electoral graveyard. And if Republicans are truly worried about the technological chasm between their party and the Democrats, they should be just as worried that Democrats will use that advantage to help find, register, and turn-out Latinos, Asians, and African-American voters who are citizens.
The president may want a victory on immigration. But, it is Republicans who need it more. That is why this legislation can make it through the congressional thicket in a way the gun bill did not. And, it is also why it's best for the president and Democrats to do as much as possible to get out the way.
Charlie Cook's Column
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