The price of defying your base

By Bill Schneider
April 8, 2013

Defying your base is always risky. It can either bring you down — or it can make you look stronger.

Right now, politicians in both parties are trying to pull it off.  Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) – a likely contender for the 2016 Republican nomination – is preparing to challenge conservatives on immigration reform. President Barack Obama is defying liberals on entitlement reform. What are they thinking?

Your base is people who are with you when you’re wrong.  Sooner or later, every politician gets in trouble. He needs people to stick up for him — people who say, “He was there for us and we’ll be there for him.” President Ronald Reagan’s base, for example, stuck with him during the Iran-contra scandal. So did President Bill Clinton’s base during impeachment.

President George H. W. Bush lost his base when he abandoned his “No new taxes” pledge in 1990. President George W. Bush tried, and failed, to bring conservatives along on immigration reform in 2007. Clinton defied liberals on the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 and on welfare reform in 1996 – and got away with it. Clinton, of course, had a special talent for political high-wire acts.

How can you defy your base and not turn into a double-crosser? You need four things to bring it off.

One is political cover. Conservative pundit Rich Lowry wrote shortly after the November election, “Getting killed three-to-one among Latino voters understandably concentrates the mind.” Mainstream Republicans will certainly understand and support Rubio’s pitch for immigration reform. But will conservatives, who denounce any path to citizenship for illegal immigrants as amnesty?

Some conservative organizations are trying to give Rubio cover. Business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform and new conservative Super PACs like Republicans for Immigration Reform and the Hispanic Leadership Network are springing into action to support immigration reform. Rubio has been winning praise from conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

The left, on the other hand, is infuriated by Obama’s proposal to change the cost-of-living index in a way that will reduce Social Security benefits (and save the government $130 billion). Jim Dean, chairman of Democracy for America and brother of former Democratic chairman Howard Dean, told Politico, “Over 200,000 progressive members of your own party don’t ‘have your back,’ and we are prepared to fight you every step of the way.”

But Obama is getting cover from Republicans. Democrats may worry that Obama is too quick to make concessions, but Republicans are rejecting those concessions out of hand. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) dismissed them, saying there was no reason Obama’s offer of “modest entitlement savings . . . should be held hostage for more tax hikes.”

You’re not selling out if the other side refuses to buy.

Second, you need to frame the issue so your supporters understand what you are doing. Amnesty is deeply offensive to conservative values, so Rubio is framing the issue in economic terms. The United States needs immigration reform because more legal workers will stimulate the economy and bring in more tax revenue. Business is ready to back him on that.

Obama is framing entitlement reform as part of a larger package. “The president has made it clear,” one senior administration official told Politico, “that he is willing to compromise and do tough things to reduce the deficit, but only in the context of a package that has balance and includes revenues from the wealthiest Americans and that is designed to promote economic growth.”

Third, it helps to have broad popular support for what you are doing, even if your base is not on board. That’s certainly the case with immigration reform. A late March Washington Post-ABC News poll shows a solid majority of Americans (57 percent) in favor of a “path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants. Latinos, of course, support the idea (80 percent), but so do African-Americans (67 percent), young people (67), moderates (59) and independents (58).

Who’s opposed? Republicans, 60 to 35 percent.

This is where Obama has a problem.  Reducing the cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security recipients is not popular. Just 30 percent of Americans favored it in a poll last September, sponsored by the National Academy of Social Insurance. In a December YouGov survey, only 16 percent thought it was a good idea. Obama has to sell it as part of a package deal that includes popular things like universal pre-kindergarten education, more infrastructure spending and special help for the oldest and poorest seniors.

You need one more thing to bring off a big concession: It has to work. After the first President Bush got his tax hike in 1990, the economy went into recession. Conservatives said, “We told you so.”

On the other hand, Clinton’s defiance of his party on NAFTA and welfare reform ushered in a period of stunning growth and balanced budgets.

If Congress passes immigration reform this year, it had better not produce a new wave of illegal immigration. That’s what happened after Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986. Which is why Rubio is insisting that the deal include absolute assurances of border security.

The “grand bargain” that Obama is trying to make with Congress includes a lot of painful things – higher taxes, benefit cuts.  It had better start turning the economy around quickly.

If it does, he will be seen as a man of courage.  If it doesn’t, he will be denounced as a sell-out.

PHOTO (Top): President Barack Obama during a visit to the Denver Police Academy in Denver, Colorado April 3, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

PHOTO (Insert A): Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland March 14, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

PHOTO (Insert B): President Bill Clinton waves after his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention August 29 at Chicago’s United Center August 30, 1996. REUTERS

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