Thus far into Obama’s term, Republicans have benefited from a landscape that divides Democrats, splintering the party and permitting Republicans to present a united front. If we’re going to play hardball — which we probably should, starting with pushing a robust public option through reconciliation — we might want to reshape the landscape, going into the midterm elections.
The easy way to do this is to find an issue that splinters Republicans while uniting Democrats, exaggerating the Republican Party’s ongoing civil war, revealing its nastier, more conservative elements, and permitting a semblance of Democratic unity. The natural place to start is immigration reform.
The last time Republicans put immigration reform on the table, from 2004 to 2007 or so, it destroyed what little remained of President Bush’s political capital, turned the right wing against the Republican establishment, and generally caused havoc. Republicans railed against the Bush plan, which would have allowed illegal immigrants to naturalize, by terming it “amnesty,” and equating partial legalization with the complete erasure of American borders. This despite the fact that the public generally supports a path to citizenship.
Re-opening that debate would surely push momentum back in to the “tea party” movement — but, in so doing, it would force the Republicans to embrace or outright spurn the movement. Although “tea party” favorables remain high, with proper messaging, this could become a Catch 22, presenting either a potent reminder that today’s Republican Party represents the very worst of our collective societal impulses, or shattering Republicans’ unity once and for all.
It’s a gamble, but at this point, there’s really little to lose. If Democrats hold the line, we may even get positive reform out of the process.