Profiles in courage are rare in our politics these days, but the Senate’s passage of comprehensive immigration reform is bright example of how Washington does not need to be a place where good ideas go to die.
Credit goes to the “Courageous 14” Republican senators who joined with the Democratic majority to make this legislation pass by a towering bipartisan margin of 68 to 32. Building squarely on the tireless efforts of the Gang of Eight—led by Marco Rubio, Chuck Schumer, Robert Menendez, and John McCain—the bill’s passage was a timely reminder that common ground is the only practical problem-solving space on Capitol Hill. That matters if you believe Congress should be more than an ideological debating society.
But the first among equals in the profile in courage sweepstakes is Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Of all the Gang of Eight senators, he was the most unvarnished in his advocacy and he has the most to lose.
Immigration reform isn’t exactly a popular agenda item in South Carolina. It has no natural constituency, as in Arizona or Florida. There is no obvious political upside for a senator already viewed as suspect by the Tea Party crowd and facing reelection—and a possible primary fight—in 2014. A lesser public servant would shy away and let others do the heavy lifting, but Graham instead said: “I don’t want to stop being a senator to be a senator.”
Instead of playing to the base and dealing in demographic denial, Graham spoke bluntly about the stakes of failure on immigration reform. “We’re in a demographic death spiral as a party and the only way we can get back in good graces with the Hispanic community, in my view, is to pass comprehensive immigration reform,” he said on Meet the Press. “If you don’t do that, it really doesn’t matter who we run, in my view,” in 2016.
As some party leaders counsel a strategy of simply trying to get out the white vote more effectively, Graham is not afraid to confront Republicans’ declining fortunes among Hispanics in presidential campaigns—down from 44 percent for George W. Bush in 2004 to 27 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012.
“This is an odd formula for the party to adopt, the fastest growing demographic in the country, and we’re losing votes every election,” he said on Fox News. “It’s one thing to shoot yourself in the foot—just don’t reload the gun. I intend not to reload this gun when it comes to Hispanics. I intend to tear this wall down and pass an immigration reform bill that’s an American solution to an American problem.”
Remember that many conservative populists in his party have been warning of cultural Armageddon if this bill is signed. Rush Limbaugh declared that “the Republican Party is committing suicide” if immigration reform passes. Ann Coulter wrote that “amnesty isn’t just bad for America, it’s the end of America.” Pat Buchanan compared Republicans working to pass immigration reform to Neville Chamberlain appeasing Hitler by giving him the Sudetenland. You get the idea.
Already folks like Laura Ingraham are promising to support a primary challenge against Graham, saying: “He needs to be defeated, primaried, and we need to win that seat with a Reagan conservative who will not do this kind of nonsense. He needs to be punished, the liberal Republicans need to be punished, and they need to be thrown out of office at the first opportunity.” The obvious irony that Reagan signed the last major immigration reform, well to the left of the current proposal, has gone unaddressed.
Now the bill is halfway to becoming law. The steepest challenge is ahead—the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. With 68 votes in the Senate, the hope was that the margin would pressure the House into taking action, buoyed by the efforts of pro-immigration reform conservatives like Rep. Paul Ryan. But Speaker John Boehner preemptively declared that he would require a majority of the Republican majority to support the bill before letting it come up for a vote, leaving the legislation potentially held hostage by the 50 or so House radicals—the likes of Steve King, Michele Bachmann, and Louie Gohmert. I asked Graham last week what he thought of the additional legislative hurdle.
“The House needs to do what they need to do,” Graham said. “Let them pass their version. Let us pass ours and see if we can conference. I just don’t think we’ll ever get a bill signed that doesn’t have a pathway to citizenship…Why would a Democratic president sign a bill without pathway to citizenship when 70 percent of the Republicans support a pathway to citizenship?”
Here’s where the isolation of the conservative echo chamber has serious implications for successful representative self-government. The Heritage Foundation, headed up by Graham’s former South Carolina Senate colleague Jim DeMint, tried to argue that immigration reform would blow up the deficit. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that instead it would reduce the deficit by $197 billion over 10 years and increase real GDP by 3.3 percent. In other words, the reform not only would help secure the border and reconcile reality with our laws, it would provide a boost to our economy.
But even in the face of this win-win, we are all dependent on House Republicans taking a page from Lindsey Graham’s profile in courage playbook going forward. There is plenty of upside economically for the nation and politically for the GOP, at least in terms of not permanently alienating the fastest growing demographic group in the nation.
But as with JFK’s original definition of profiles in courage, elected representatives must do what they know is right for the long-term fate of the nation in the face of potential short-term political risk from their constituents. That is the spirit Graham exemplified in the Senate on this bill. Now conservative colleagues in the House also will need to rise to the occasion. They can gird their courage with a practical realization: they will earn their rock-bottom approval ratings permanently if they cannot find a way to reason together to pass major legislation.