Perhaps one of the most interesting facets over the debate in Congress on immigration reform is the missed nuances of the issue. Most of the commentary has focused on how the GOP needs to connect with these voters, Democrats favor citizenship, Republicans border security, the benefits and cons of differing approaches, etc. But the nuances of the issue are missed, especially on the electoral coalition front.
Yes, it is true the GOP needs to connect with Hispanic voters. I have written on this point here and here. But immigration reform passage is not an instant panacea for the GOP’s ills with Hispanics nor will it usher in a new, permanent Democratic majority over the next few decades. The reason is fairly simple. The political coalitions that form in the US rarely stand the test of time. If you want the long version just read RCP’s election analyst, Sean Trende’s, take on the political coalitions that have formed in the US over the years.
The short version is basically that political coalitions in the US come and go. Most successful two term Presidents have formed their own coalitions. Some of the most recent examples include Ronald Reagan’s blending of the suburban New Right, Evangelical Christians and fiscal and libertarian hawks. Bill Clinton’s coalition was composed of fiscal hawks, suburban voters, minorities and Southern whites. George Bush won suburban voters, Evangelical Christians and national security hawks. Most recently Obama’s coalition was based on urban youth, minorities and the suburban vote.
Of course these are only preliminary looks at the political coalitions these Presidents have formed. But one of the reasons why political coalitions fall apart fairly soon after their formation is the fact that the voting blocs that make them up are often at odds with each other on the same issues. For example, Southern whites were at odds with African-Americans on many issues in 1992 and 1996 but they voted for Bill Clinton in both elections. Once Clinton left office, those differences were revealed and exploited by the next Presidential candidates.
Most people do not have the patience, let alone the understanding, to grasp these concepts. As a result, the media and analysts tend to play down this factor. But it is important when it is brought into the context of the major issues of the day. Enter immigration reform. The main commentary on the issue focuses on the GOP needing to appeal to Hispanics (true). Democrats want passage so they have a fresh source of new votes (true). But massive, wide-ranging reform such as this is not that straight-forward and it has the potential to divide political coalitions; even long-standing political coalitions.
Much of this has been documented on the GOP side. Fiscal hawks are split, national defense conservatives are battling with free market libertarians and conservatives and even the Evangelical Right is fractured. Less documented are the fractures that are showing in the Democratic Caucus. Primarily, it concerns their core minority support, Hispanics and African-Americans. The Congressional Black Caucus is concerned about the Senate Immigration bill and becoming increasingly concerned about the forming House counterpart. The Black American Leadership Conference is planning a rally in front of the Capitol against immigration reform. Among their grievances, they worry the bill will allow undocumented immigrants on the path to citizenship to get the low-paying jobs African-Americans occupy and use to build their resumes.
This nuance of immigration reform is unreported and is often rarely considered. Now to be fair, individual bills do not fracture voting blocs in a single election nor is there any guarantee they will. After-all, it took decades for the Civil Rights Act and its accompanying bills to make Southern whites constantly vote the exact opposite of their African-American counterparts (Clinton as able to overcome this trend).
It is important to remember in the current context however that the GOP political coalition, homogeneously white and older, is more stable than the multi-generational and multi-racial coalition of the Democrats. Democrats have yet to realize the inherent contradictions in managing a majority-minority party. Hispanic and African-American interests are at odds with each other, especially in the current economic context where the economic is barely expanding. The BALC represents this dynamic and nuance of immigration reform.
Political coalitions in America come and go. But it is important to keep in mind that when major legislative battles over pertinent issues come up there are always nuances. The first glance most Americans take on the issue may not always be the most accurate one and it might only reflect the short-term vs. long-term impact of the legislation. If one can capture the nuance of the legislation, they can gather a more accurate assessment of the issue and its impact.