Shocked by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s defeat in last week’s Virginia primary, many in the media have decided that this “earthquake” has re-shaped the political landscape.
Immigration reform is dead, they say, and tea party radicals are far stronger than many suspected.
Meanwhile, the alarmists warn, political polarization has divided the country, poisoning our democracy. On that last point they are half-right; Republican voters have moved to the far right, while politically active Democrats are beginning to shift toward the left.
But polarization is not necessarily a threat to the Republic. Pointed debate can clarify the issues– and underline what is at stake, raising voter awareness. Conservatives are making it clear what they are willing to sacrifice for the sake of their ideology, and mainstream Americans are becoming alarmed. For example, David Brat, the far-right conservative who defeated Eric Cantor, says that he would like to slash social security by 2/3. This is a statement that could bring out voters who normally would not vote in a mid-term election.
As I will argue in part 2 of this post, at this point, too many mainstream America are not paying attention to the issues. “I’m just not interested in politics,” they say. Or, “I’ve given up on politicians.” A democracy needs a passionate, engaged electorate. Indifference is what will poison the Republic.
Cantor’s Loss Does Not mean that “Immigration Reform is Dead”
The conventional wisdom says that, until recently, President Obama had been waiting for the House to act on immigration reform. Supposedly, Eric Cantor, the House Majority leader, was open to some sort of compromise on an overhaul of immigration law, and this is why he lost the primary.
Not so fast.
First, this is not all up to the House. Obama could use his executive authority to limit deportations.
Speaking at a fundraiser the day after the primary, President Obama said: “It’s interesting to listen to the pundits and the analysts and some of the conventional wisdom talks about how the politics of immigration reform seem impossible now. I fundamentally reject that.”
An Army of Refugee Children Flood Our Borders–What Should We Do?
Even as the president spoke, thousands of children from Central America continued to surge across our border, seeking an escape from the violence and poverty of Central America.
Once minors get into the U.S., they typically turn to immigration agents for protection. Under a law passed during the George W. Bush administration, children, unlike adults, cannot simply be deported. They must be turned over to Health and Human Services, and protected while their case is decided. Some will go to court where Legal Aid lawyers will argue that they will be in danger if they return home. Others will be reunited with relatives in the U.S. Some will ultimately be deported–but this could take years.
On Fox Special Report with Bret Baier, political analyst Brit Hume paid tribute to these lone childrens” struggle and their courage: “The immigrant children illegally crossing American borders by the thousands have triggered a logistical, humanitarian and law enforcement crisis to which current US immigration policy has no satisfactory answer.
“It may be tempting to call for their deportation,” he added, “but that ignores an important consideration: what the minor children, most of them unaccompanied by adults, had to go through just to get here.
“I have seen some of these kids,” Hume told his audience. “A youth home where I serve on the board here in Virginia has taken in dozens of them. They are remarkable kids from what I have seen of them. They are well behaved. When meals are served some of them weep at the fact that they’re eating better than their families can back home. They wait till all are served before they’ll eat. They turn up at prayer services. . . . They potentially could make an enormous contribution to this country if we can find a way to house them and care for them and let them stay”. (Hat-tip to Digby for calling attention to Hume’s impassioned speech.)
The flood of young refugees, crossing into this country daily– and overflowing holding centers—casts a spotlight on their plight, making it clear that illegal immigration is not a problem that we can ignore. We just don’t know what to do with these children.
One Boy’s Story
“‘Where I live, parents are obligated to give a son to the gangs,'” Carols, a 17-year-old from Honduras told Bloomberg, while fighting back tears. An uncle who tried to defy the criminals paid with his life.
Another child showed Bloomberg his right hand: before he fled Honduras, a gang had accosted him on the street and amputated the tips of two fingers
“If you want to live, you have to leave your family,” a third 16-year-old confided.
“Carlos’ journey of 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers) took about a month by bus and foot,” Bloomberg reports. When he arrived in northern Mexico, just a quarter mile from the border, he explained that he hasn’t decided whether he’ll try to reach an uncle in Houston clandestinely or voluntarily surrender to border agents.
“’If I do that, they could deport me,” Carlos explained
“That could be fatal,” the reporter observed.
Pressure on President Obama
In the U.S., reform advocates continue to press Presidebt Obama to lower the number of deportations, and to extend amnesty to the parents and guardians of “Dreamers”—children who have been in this country for five years.
“Just because Cantor lost doesn’t mean that all of those other conversations and criticism of immigration goes away,” Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University historian recently told CNN.” The likelihood was that the President was planning to use executive action anyway regardless of what happened to Cantor.”
I’m not at all certain that Obama was poised to act. Friday, White House representatives disappointed reformers by saying that “they are still leaving the window wide open for Congress to pass an immigration bill by the end of the summer — before the White House makes moves to implement more limited fixes on its own.”
Kevin McCarthy- The Man of the Moment
But Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican who is replacing Cantor as the Majority Leader of the House, could emerge as an unlikely reform advocate.
McCarthy hails from California’s 23rd congressional district, an area that is 35% Latino, and where the local business community depends on immigrant labor to pick local crops.
“We have spoken with Congressman McCarthy and his staff about immigration reform and its importance to our local and regional economy,” Cynthia Pollard, president and CEO of the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce recently told CNN.
“I led a delegation of several other business leaders in a meeting with Congressman McCarthy last fall in Washington, D.C., to discuss the issue,” Pollard added. “He expressed . . . his commitment to a step-by-step assessment and overhaul of the system that is clearly broken.”
No surprise, the immigrants’ advocates are ready to turn up the heat: “As the person responsible for scheduling House votes, when it comes to immigration reform, McCarthy will either be a hero or a zero,” Frank Sherry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration reform advocacy group recently told CNN.
“He can save the GOP from itself by quickly scheduling a vote on historic legislation that the majority of the House, the country and even his district supports; or he can squander the opportunity . . . The future of the GOP may well hinge on his choice.”
Clearly, immigration reform is not dead.
To the contrary, in some ways I’m more hopeful than I was before Cantor lost his primary. At most, Cantor’s support for reform was lukewarm. In fact, there is a strong argument to be made that Cantor lost, not because he was ready to compromise on immigration, but because his supporters didn’t turn out to vote. They thought he had the election locked up.
McCarthy, on the other hand, is going to be feeling serious pressure from businessmen back home, and they, along with the flood of young refugees from Central America, will keep the issue front and center.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that last January McCarthy was the first member of House GOP leadership to support legal status for undocumented immigrants. He pointed out that: “42 percent of the people who are here illegally came here legally on a visa.” He believes that “we need a guest workers program.” He also co-sponsored the ENLIST Act, with fellow Californian Rep. Jeff Denham, which would have provided a pathway to citizenship for certain undocumented youth who serve in the military.
Granted, if McCarthy supports reform, House Republicans who are up for re-election and fear Cantor’s fate will feel obliged to take a very hard line—even if that means standing up to their new majority leader. But when Rupert Murdoch is begging his party to act on immigration reform, you know that Republican opposition is cracking.
My guess is that the debate over immigration will come to a head either toward the end of July, or during the midterm elections.
Cantor’s Defeat Does Not Mean that the Tea Party is Alive and Well
Since Cantor took a drubbing, more than one commentator has insisted that David Brat’s win is proof that “the tea party is resilient.”
This theme goes hand in hand with the notion that immigration reform is dead. “Now many in the Beltway will simply say immigration is untouchable because the tea party wants it that way and if the tea party can beat Cantor it can beat anyone” one pundit declared.
First, it is important to recognize that Brat was not supported by the National Tea Party. His cheerleaders represented a small fringe group in one Virginia district. And Virginia’s 7th district is not just another Republican district. For 43 years it has been a GOP stronghold. The last Democratic congressman elected from the 7th left office in 1971. Since then, gerrymandering has only intensified political passions in that neck of the woods.
Secondly, Brat himself is not a typical tea party activist who believes in small government.Consider his views on a range of issues: Reportedly, Brat supports slashing Medicare and Social Security payouts to seniors by 2/3. He wants to dissolve the IRS. He doesn’t fear global warming. And he doesn’t believe in the “common” good.
Will he express these views during the campaign? If he does, it is possible that alarmed centrists (particularly seniors) could come out in force, handing victory to his Democratic opponent, Jack Trammell.
I am not saying that this will happen But Brat is an inexperienced, unpredictable politician who might do or say anything.
For example, he has called for extreme cuts to funding for education. On “You.Tube” he explained: “My hero Socrates trained Plato on a rock. How much did that cost? So the greatest minds in history became the greatest minds in history without spending a lot of money.”
(Aristotle and Plato on a rock? Imagine what Jon Stewart could do with that as a model for how we should redesign our public schools.)
Nor is Brat simply another right leaning economist. His CV shows that his scholarly work includes “God and Advanced Mammon — Can Theological Types Handle Usury and Capitalism?” and “An Analysis of the Moral Foundations in Ayn Rand.”
How many grass roots tea partiers talk about Ayn Rand, Mammon and Usury?
In sum, Brat is not a garden-variety Tea Partier. A fringe candidate, he was elected by a fringe of the electorate in an unusually conservative district.
Some have suggested that Brat will embolden other Tea Party types to crawl out of the woodwork and run for office. But I doubt that we’ll see many Brat look-alikes joining Congress.
Professor Brat is sui generis Or to put it another way, he is somewhat unhinged. In this, he reminds me of Sarah Palin. I can’t help but wonder: can he see Russia from Richmond?