The Great Debate

The five clans of the GOP

If we’re lucky, we’ll get a contest between Republican Jeb Bush and Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. Both are responsible adults, relative moderates in their respective parties. Either could get elected.

Clinton faces the easier path to nomination. Her party is united. Bush faces warring clans. Sure, Clinton will face some opposition on the left, which is critical of her hawkish record on Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. But most Democrats will see her as a good contrast with President Barack Obama. She’s the tough guy. She won’t get rolled by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Or by House Republicans.

In a CNN poll taken in February, only 10 percent of Democrats said they would prefer a Democrat who is “more liberal than Clinton.” Fifteen percent wanted someone more conservative. Seventy percent of Democrats said she’s fine.

Bush’s prospects are more difficult.  For one thing, there’s the problem of his name. The minute voters hear the name “Bush,” they say, “Oh no!  Not another one!” It brings back all the bad memories — the war in Iraq, the financial crisis, Hurricane Katrina.

Most people who remember the Clinton years remember good times. We were making lots of money, and no one seemed to threaten us. When CNN asked voters earlier this year how they would vote if the choice were Clinton versus Bush, Clinton won by a landslide — 57 percent to 37 percent.

The GOP’s immigration problem

Old vaudeville joke:

Man goes to the doctor.  Says he has a pain in his arm.

“Have you ever had this problem before?” the doctor says.

“Yes,” the man answers.

“Well, you got it again.”


Now look at the Republicans’ immigration problem. Have they had this problem before? Yes. Well, they’ve got it again.

Republicans had an immigration problem nearly 100 years ago. A huge wave of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe – Poles, Hungarians, Italians, Jews – came to this country during the first two decades of the 20th century, before strict national quotas were imposed in 1924. These immigrants were largely Catholic and Jewish.

Republicans were the party of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment. The GOP did little to reach out to immigrants, except to try to “Americanize” them and “reform” them (the temperance movement).

The price of defying your base

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.

Rubio rewrites GOP media playbook

Comprehensive immigration reform still looks uncertain on Capitol Hill as the principles laid out by Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and the other members of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” slowly evolve into legislative text. But Rubio’s lead role in this has been crucial. Equally important, was the template Rubio provided by engaging with media of all stripes – conservative, mainstream and online – to sell the idea, and his party, to audiences outside the usual Republican comfort zone.

Diagnosing what ails the Republican Party has become a favorite Beltway pastime. But it’s clear that rebuilding the brand among Latino voters tops the “to-do” list. President Barack Obama defeated GOP nominee Mitt Romney by more than 20 points among Latino voters, according to many exit polls. The GOP has a small amount of time until this trend is set in stone.

Enter Rubio, who tackled an historically difficult issue – particularly for the GOP’s conservative wing, with whom he is identified. His immigration principles had to withstand scrutiny on the right and address the White House’s moving goalposts on the left. The first-term senator faced the challenge of dealing with both ends of the political spectrum without losing his balance.

Immigration plan does only half the job

Heeding the Obama administration’s call for immigration reform, a bipartisan group of eight senators Monday released a proposal they plan to introduce as legislation. They wisely included legalization for current undocumented immigrants, but their plan will likely come up short on a guest-worker program for legal migrant workers.

While legalization is a good step, lack of a comprehensive guest-worker program only perpetuates the problem many immigration critics cite as their biggest concern: unauthorized immigration. Yet guest-worker measures have worked in this country before, so it is pure politics, rather than substance, that prevents officials from crafting one now.

Unauthorized immigrants who are not violent or criminals should indeed be legalized. They came here for economic security, and many are on their way to achieving it. So many of their offspring, the so-called “DREAMers,” who were brought here as children, know nothing but the United States and speak only English. They are Americans in all the ways that count — except a law that now says they aren’t. It’s time for the law to accept them.

The big winner: Marco Rubio

Coming into tonight, the Tea Party’s big success has been knocking off a wide range of Republican incumbents or elected officials aiming for the Senate or the Governor’s mansion. This was nearly all to the benefit of candidates with minimal to no political experience. Even the Tea Partiers who held office, like Sharon Angle, were marginal figures in the legislatures in which they served. Whether a Mike Lee, Rand Paul or Joe Miller can actually translate their ideas into action in the Senate—whether they can be anything but marginal players—is an open question that will be resolved over the next six years.

But among the Tea Party-powered candidates, there is one exception, and he is the real big winner of the night: Marco Rubio. A former Speaker of the Florida House, Rubio was not carried by the Tea Party wave, he rode it. He challenged a popular sitting Governor in the primary and did not blink when faced with calls to pull out for the good of the party. Instead, he marshaled his forces, saw which way the political wind was blowing and destroyed Charlie Crist, not once, but twice.

It is not his ideas or his personal story or his hoped-for ability to appeal to Latino voters that makes Rubio garner the respect of the party elite, and have some dreaming that he is the Republican’s answer to Obama. It is instead political savvy that enabled him to tap into the Tea Party movement from the beginning. Unlike many of the other Tea Party officials, he had something to lose by running. Whether this, plus his previous high-level political experience, translates into a successful legislative career is unknown. But it is a good start.