Can Republicans find a way out of the political dead end they marched into during the 2012 campaign? Can President Obama make his second term more productive than the final gridlocked years of his first? Can Democrats and Republicans in Congress relearn the forgotten art of compromise after years of angry polarization?
The answers may depend on how the new bipartisan plan for immigration reform fares in Congress.
The initial signs are promising. The senators leading the effort are among the chamber’s most practiced negotiators, Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). The Republicans who lead the House, where any immigration bill faces its most difficult test, haven’t denounced the plan, even if they haven’t immediately embraced it.
But the two most interesting players in the drama weren’t those inside-the-room deal makers. Instead, they were two politicians whose role will focus largely on managing public opinion on the outside: on one side, Obama, and on the other, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
Obama’s main challenge in this battle is to stay out of the way.
That won’t be as easy as it sounds. During his reelection campaign, the president promised to make immigration reform an early priority in his second term, and his aides have worked for months on a detailed legislative proposal that Obama had planned to unveil Tuesday in Las Vegas.
Instead, Democratic supporters of immigration reform asked him to hold back. A Schumer-McCain plan will be difficult enough to get Republican legislators to sign onto, they told him; an “Obama plan” would be dead on arrival in Congress.
Instead of acting as Mr. Inside, a role that brought him little success during the last four years, Obama’s role is to act as Mr. Outside — mobilizing public support, keeping pressure on Congress to move a bill forward and reassuring anxious Democrats that they’re getting a good deal despite the concessions Republicans will demand.
In a sense, Obama is playing the same role on immigration reform that he’s assumed in recent battles over tax rates and gun control. He’s not trying to negotiate the deal, as he often did during his first term. Instead, he’s seeking the mantle once conferred on Ronald Reagan, that of the nation’s great communicator.
Amid the crises of his first term, Obama told the New Republic in an interview published this week, he did a poor job of “communicating with the American people about why we were doing what we were doing.”
“And so I’ve been spending a lot of time just thinking about how do I communicate more effectively ... ,” he said, “as opposed to just playing an insider game here in Washington.”
It will be tough for the president to resist the temptation to inject himself more deeply into the process, if only so he can claim credit for any results. But he’s already passed the first test: His relatively gentle speech in Las Vegas did no harm. He warned Congress about the need for action, noted the need for a clear path to citizenship and signed on to toughening enforcement, a key Republican demand. But he didn’t try to dictate the details.
That left Republicans without a lot to criticize about the speech. A Republican National Committee release Tuesday blamed Obama not for anything he said Tuesday but rather for his failure to pass immigration reform in his first term — as if the RNC wouldn’t have fought any such attempt tooth and nail.
Why is the GOP determined to turn itself back into a party that supports immigration reform after six years of spurning the idea?
“Elections,” McCain said with refreshing candor.
Republican leaders noticed that Mitt Romney might have won the presidency if he had run as well among Latino voters as George W. Bush did in 2004. And unless they act, their problem will get worse. The Pew Research Center has estimated that the number of Latino voters will double in the next 20 years, from 12.5 million to 25 million, and the GOP doesn’t want the bulk of those votes to go to the Democrats.
That’s where Rubio comes in. The Cuban American son of immigrants is not only the GOP’s most prominent Latino; he’s also a hero of the “tea party” right for his uncompromising gospel of small government and free markets.
The Florida senator is already making the rounds of conservative talk show hosts, appealing to them to hold their fire and give the bipartisan effort a chance.
On Tuesday, he spoke with Rush Limbaugh, who had previously denounced the Schumer-McCain plan as amnesty.
Rubio promised to hold out for tough enforcement measures. And he said he was confident that, over time, many Latinos would turn into Republicans.
The radio host practically swooned.
“What you are doing is admirable and noteworthy,” Limbaugh said. “You are recognizing reality.”
On that score, for once, Limbaugh was right.
The question now is whether Rubio can convince enough other conservatives that a bipartisan compromise is in their interest — and whether Obama can convince liberals that a compromise is in theirs.
Follow Doyle McManus on Twitter @DoyleMcManus