Immigration and the 2016 Campaign: The Sad Legacy of Speaker John Boehner

Immigration and the 2016 Campaign: The Sad Legacy of Speaker John Boehner

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There has been a great deal of ink spilled on the question of who or what is to blame for the meteoric rise of Donald Trump in the Republican Party. The alleged culprits include everything from wage stagnation to cable news to talk radio to political correctness run amok.

These may all be true in whole or in part, but I would be more precise. I blame John Boehner.

As the Wall Street Journal reported this morning, the former Republican Speaker of the House has retired to a condo in Florida, leaving the House seat he held in Ohio for 24 years up for grabs among an assortment of 15 challengers in the Republican party. He thus has a foot in the two states that will decide on March 15 whether Mr. Trump waltzes to the GOP nomination or might still be derailed.

If any one issue has driven Mr. Trump’s rise in the party, it is the positions he has taken on immigration – accusing Mexican immigrants of being drug dealers and rapists, promising to build a wall along the whole of the 2,000-mile border, and proposing a ban on immigration by Muslims. Such extreme positions were once unthinkable in American politics, but have now roused a solid plurality of GOP voters who appear to believe that dangerous and desperate times call for dangerous and desperate solutions.

So why blame John Boehner for any of this? Boehner was, by all accounts, a fairly moderate, centrist politician for whom such positions would be deeply offensive. But it was his very failure to lead like a moderate, centrist politician and work across the aisle that opened the door to the sort of destructive responses that are now on the table.

In 2013, the Senate passed on a bipartisan, 68-32 vote a comprehensive immigration reform bill that represented the most serious effort in decades to respond to the multiple challenges of immigration. While far from perfect, it was a carefully constructed compromise that would have greatly strengthened border security, barred most illegal migrants from finding legitimate employment, welcomed more highly-skilled immigrants to boost the U.S. economy, and offered a long and difficult path to legal status and citizenship for the nearly 11 million unauthorized migrants who have now lived in the country for years and in many cases decades.

When the bill moved to the Republican House, Speaker Boehner had a chance to leave his mark on history. There were multiple paths open to him. He could have instructed the Republican-led committees to prepare an alternative bill to be written and passed and conferenced with the Senate. Or given his stated reluctance to pursue a “comprehensive” approach to immigration reform, he could have passed a series of bills and then entered into negotiations with Democrats on the sequence and timing for passage. Or he could have worked with a minority in his own party and with Democrats to simply pass the Senate bill.

Any of these would have been politically difficult to be sure. But leadership is by definition politically difficult. He had willing partners on the Democratic side – including President Obama and Congressman Luis Gutierrez, the designated leader on the issue for House Democrats. And he had Republican allies in the Senate, the GOP establishment, and the business community who badly wanted to put the immigration issue behind them.

Faced with these options, what did the Speaker do? He did nothing. He buckled to the vocal opposition within his own party, and simply let the Senate bill die without a vote or a serious effort at offering an alternative.

It will go down as one of the great failings of political leadership in American history. And the consequences were predictable. Rather than strengthening party moderates like himself, Boehner’s inaction has galvanized the extremists on both sides. The Republican party is now led by Trump, and by Senator Ted Cruz who wants to see every single one of the 11 million unauthorized migrants removed. The one candidate standing who behaved like a statesman in trying to work with Democrats to pass immigration reform – Senator Marco Rubio – has been pilloried for it by his opponents and is likely to lose even in his home state.

On the Democratic side, the presidential candidates have run to the other extreme. Hillary Clinton told the Spanish-language broadcaster Univision this week that, if elected, the only migrants who would face deportation would be “violent criminals” or “people planning terrorist attacks.” In other words, the United States will have immigration laws that in theory require the government’s permission to live and work in the United States, but the president will not enforce those laws.

My former CFR colleague Michael Gerson, writing in the Washington Post this morning, reflected on the distrust that the framers of the Constitution had for the direct democracy that can lead to candidates embracing such positions. Instead, what they sought was representative government that would mediate the often extreme views of the public through “a chosen body of citizens whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country.”

But what if the members of that chosen body refuse to lead? We are witnessing the consequences. Boehner, asked if he had any candidate he supported in the upcoming GOP primary for his Ohio seat, found one last chance not to lead. Instead, he said through a spokesman that he “feels strongly that the people of the eighth district should make the call about who will represent them in the House.”

All of this reminds me, sadly, of the best line in the 1995 movie, The American President, in which the president’s chief of staff, played by Michael J. Fox, urges his boss to fight back against a demagogic opponent. “People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they'll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They're so thirsty for it they'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand.” On immigration, in the absence of genuine leadership, Americans are now drinking the sand.

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