Seeking consensus on immigration, guns
Two tough issues — immigration reform and gun control. “It won’t be easy,” President Barack Obama said about gun control in December, “but that’s no excuse not to try.” Tuesday, he said about immigration reform: “The closer we get, the more emotional this debate is going to become.”
Which does he stand a better chance of winning? Answer: immigration. On immigration, Obama has Democrats strongly behind him. Republicans are divided — and freaked out by the issue. On guns, he’s got Republicans strongly against him. Democrats are divided — and freaked out by the issue.
On both issues, the president has the public solidly behind him. That’s his biggest asset. “There’s already a growing consensus for us to build from,” he said on Dec. 19, five days after the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre. “A majority of Americans support banning the sale of military-style assault weapons.’’ On Jan. 29, when he went to Las Vegas to speak about immigration reform, he said, “A broad consensus is emerging and … a call for action can be heard coming from all across America.”
Even more important, the president’s popularity is soaring. He has a 60 percent favorable rating in the new Washington Post-ABC News poll, the highest since his first year in office.
The president intends to use the bully pulpit to rally public opinion behind both causes. He also intends to use his 2012 campaign organization, which has morphed from Obama for America to Organizing for Action, to browbeat Congress into action. Welcome to real the permanent campaign.
There are some big differences between the two issues, however.
The sense of public outrage is greater over gun violence. The issue was forced onto the agenda by the horror of a madman brutally murdering young schoolchildren and their teachers with an assault weapon. The immigration issue was forced onto the agenda for political reasons. Latinos were a key to Obama’s re-election — though Obama promised immigration reform four years ago and never delivered. Latinos are waiting for a payoff.
Republicans face a crisis of political survival. GOP nominee Mitt Romney told a Republican fundraiser in Florida last April that if Republicans don’t start doing better with Latino voters, “It spells doom for us.” It did.
If public outrage is greater over the gun issue, why are the prospects for gun control bleaker? Because opponents of gun control are better organized and more powerful. With immigration reform, supporters are better organized and more powerful.
On issues like gun control and immigration, intensity matters more than numbers. Politicians don’t just look at polls. They pay attention to how many votes the issue drives on each side. If the minority votes the issue and the majority doesn’t, the minority prevails.
The president said, “It’s going to take a wave of Americans — mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, pastors, law enforcement, mental health professionals and, yes, gun owners ‑ standing up and saying ‘Enough!’ on behalf of our kids.”
That’s happening. It happens after every sensational incident of gun violence. Gun control supporters became angry and start issuing threats: You’d better support new gun control measures or you’ll pay a price.
But that kind of anger is hard to sustain. Politicians are asking: Who’s going to be there in November 2014, almost two years from now? They know the gun lobby will be there, ready to punish waverers. Gun control supporters? They can’t be sure.
That’s a big problem for six Democratic senators up for re-election in red states next year: Mark Begich (Alaska), Max Baucus (Montana), Mary Landrieu (Louisiana), Mark Pryor (Arkansas), Kay Hagan (North Carolina) and Tim Johnson (South Dakota). And maybe for three Democratic senators up in swing states: Mark Warner (Virginia), Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire) and Mark Udall (Colorado). Those senators can depend on retribution from the gun lobby. Can they rely on support from anti-gun activists? That’s what’s freaking those Democrats out.
The nation’s leading gun control advocate, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is putting his money where his mouth is. His super PAC is spending millions of dollars to defeat lawmakers overly loyal to the gun lobby, like Representative Joe Baca last year, a pro-gun California Democrat. But Baca, running in a redrawn district, lost to another Democrat. It is not clear whether Bloomberg will be seen as a credible threat in more conservative parts of the country.
Supporters of immigration reform have to contend with anti-amnesty forces. They’re the voters who consider any path to citizenship for illegal immigrants “amnesty,” even if the process requires payment of a fine and is conditioned on improved border security. Anti-illegal immigration activists have denounced the new bipartisan Senate proposal for immigration reform as “Amnesty 2.0.”
Lawmakers take those threats seriously, but anti-amnesty groups are not as powerful or as well-organized as the gun lobby is.
Moreover, a number of forces have come together to build pressure for immigration reform. The border is more secure. “Yes, there’s been improvement in border security and, yes, it helps a lot,” Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) said at a press conference. Illegal immigration is down because of the slowdown in the U.S. economy, because of improvements in the Mexican economy and because of a declining Mexican birth rate (58 percent of the undocumented immigrant population in the U.S. is from Mexico, according to the Pew Hispanic Center).
There is also the fact that, as the Pew Center predicts, the Latino electorate is likely to double by 2030. That has Republicans terrified. The entire country could become California, where the GOP is barely holding on. In a radio interview last week, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a Tea Party favorite, called immigration “an issue that we do need to evolve on.”
In addition, major organized interests support immigration reform: immigration activists, labor, religious groups, business and farm interests. While gun control could be regarded as the passion of the moment, immigration reform has a denser network of supporters, capable of rewarding and punishing lawmakers.
Republican voters are split on immigration reform. In the CBS News poll, 36 percent of Republicans want illegal immigrants deported, and 35 percent believe they should be allowed to stay and eventually apply for citizenship. Republican voters are not split on guns. By better than 3 to 1 in the Gallup poll, Republicans oppose new gun laws.
Immigration reform will still be a tough fight – particularly in the House of Representatives, where conservatives oppose any citizenship option. They prefer permanent legal residence. But the president is holding firm, and Democrats are solidly behind him.
Gun control looks more doubtful. The most advocates may be able to get is a law requiring background checks at gun shows. This is supported by almost 100 percent of voters in Virginia, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, according to Quinnipiac polls.
Yet Democrats are still freaking out. Consider that after pushing through new gun laws in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s job approval dropped 15 points, according to Quinnipiac. Among men, it was a 20-point drop. He’s still OK (59 percent job approval).
But if the gun issue can damage a Democrat in New York named Cuomo, no one is safe.
PHOTO (Top): President Barack Obama talks about immigration reform at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, January 29, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed
PHOTO (Insert Middle): Customers view semi automatic guns on display at a gun shop in Los Angeles, California December 19, 2012. REUTERS/Gene Blevins
PHOTO (Insert Bottom: Young people line up for assistance with paperwork for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in Los Angeles, California, August 15, 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn