Politics is the art of getting re-elected.
Goodness knows, we’ve seen that axiom play out in Illinois of late, where raw self-interest heavily directed every move by almost every elected official — and would-be elected official — in cutting the deal last month to fix the state’s public employee pension mess.
Now the same self-serving calculus appears to be serving the nation well in creating promising political conditions to pass comprehensive immigration reform. This, finally, could be the year.
Democrats have long favored cutting a single big deal — Hispanic voters are, by and large, their voters. Now Republicans, waking to the realization that their days as a national party are numbered if they don’t broaden their appeal, are showing an uncharacteristic eagerness to tackle the problem, too.
The GOP prefers a piecemeal approach, one that we fear could be nothing more than a way to avoid the most radioactive reforms; but the approach taken matters less than the essential result reached — a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants now living among us.
The election-year calendar works in favor of reform. After the March primary elections, Republicans in all but the most severely gerrymandered districts may be more willing to sign onto immigration reform, looking to appeal to more moderate voters in November. For a few brief months, they may be more amenable to the entreaties of their own party’s national leaders.
John Boehner’s growing backbone works in favor of reform. The House speaker’s open disgust with ideologically militant tea party groups, who he now says have “lost all credibility,” is a strong sign he’s ready to buck them on immigration reform. The man is still embarrassed that he allowed the tea party faction of his caucus to shut down the federal government last year.
But a better sign yet that Boehner is serious about immigration reform was his recent hiring of Rebecca Tallent, a prominent adviser on the issue to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has long backed immigration reform.
Mitt Romney’s failed presidential run in 2012 works in favor of reform. Romney picked up only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, a big reason he lost to President Barack Obama. And while conservatives may be right in saying that immigration reform alone won’t instantly transform Hispanic Democrats into Hispanic Republicans, it’s important to note that Romney also fared poorly among women voters and independents who were turned off by the GOP’s callous stand on immigration.
Here’s what we worry about: cherry-picking. The danger of Congress taking a piecemeal, rather than comprehensive, approach to immigration reform is that Republicans will push through the easy stuff, such as doing more to secure the nation’s borders and increasing the number of visas for highly educated high-tech workers, leaving Democrats no bargaining chips to accomplish the tough stuff.
Obama can’t allow a piecemeal approach to immigration reform to become a half-baked approach. The most essential measure outlined in a bill passed by the Senate last summer — a path to citizenship for 11 million people here illegally — must be the foundation for all upcoming negotiations. That Senate bill was supported by both the Democratic and Republican senators from Illinois.
At the same time, the painful reminder of those marathon pension battles in Springfield is that nobody gets everything if everybody gets something. It would be a supreme irony if Democrats took an ugly page from the playbook of conservative House Republicans and killed immigration reform by demanding too much, conceding little and determining to hand Republicans nothing that might look like a victory.
The goal, as any battle-scarred Illinois legislator can attest, is to come up with something that nobody likes but everybody can live with, knowing perfectly well that it will be bashed mercilessly by plenty of folks who were not in the arena — they did not have to take the hard vote — from now through Election Day. That, oddly enough, is politics at its best.