Monday, February 11, 2013

A Golden Bridge

When the folks over at Politico asked Obama speechwriters "how Obama is approaching the speech compared with his previous State of the Union addresses" they received an enigmatic, 2,500-year-old quotation from the Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu:
"Built your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across."
Having no idea what to make of that comment, Politico dutifully reported it and then set about discussing what items are likely to be raised in the speech. Among them will almost certainly be immigration reform. President Obama captured a staggering 75% of the Latino vote and demographic trends suggest that the electoral importance of the Latino demographic will only rise in the coming decades.

Immigration reform is thus a logical portion of Obama's second term agenda but it may be something more than that; it may be the golden bridge Sun Tzu spoke of.

By most accounts President Obama's first State of the Union speech of his second term will be a good deal more combative and verbosely liberal than his previous addresses to Congress. That news has prompted Marco Rubio - who will be delivering counterpoint for the Republican Party - and Rand Paul - who will speak for the Tea Party - to adjust their own language.

What will these speeches look like, particularly given Obama's more assertive tone and the inevitable presence of the immigration issue?

Odds are quite good that Rand Paul will echo his party's verbose objection to a softening of US policy towards illegal immigration. He will loudly oppose a path to citizenship and prefer hard-hitting enforcement measures that seek to both reduce illegal immigration and drive away those already here.

Rubio, however, is more of a mystery. Republicans know that demographic trends are against them. They know that they have to somehow chip away at the Democratic dominance of the Latino vote and they know immigration reform is a crucial way to accomplish this. They also know that a willingness to compromise on this issue will surely send the Tea Party into a rage and invite primary challenges for legislators who cooperate with the President.

Even Rubio's own mother has weighed in on the immigration issue, advising him "Don’t mess with the immigrants, my son. Please, don’t mess with them."

Is immigration President Obama's golden bridge?

Obama's more combative tone will almost certainly dial the Tea Party's hostility towards him up a few notches which will make more main-stream Republicans even less eager to be seen with them. Meanwhile, Obama's immigration proposals -- which will likely be rather centrist for exactly this reason -- will have broad-based appeal to the more moderate members of the Republican party.

Republican legislators will then be faced with a choice: jettison the Tea Party and be part of the President's immigration reform team or cast your lot with the Tea Party and the caricature of conservative insanity it has come to represent.

Put to the Republican Party as a whole such a choice would be difficult enough, but it will not be the Party that determines the response to the President's tacit ultimatum. Rather, each House Republican will look at his or her own district and balance the weight of Tea Party support against the threat of a Democratic/Latino coalition.
Latino Population Heat Map 2010

A look at a heat-map of Latino populations from the 2010 census (and the changes since 2000) shows an Obama immigration strategy to be a dagger pointed directly at rural western and urban southern Congressional districts with high rates of Latino population growth. While these Republicans will be most likely to defect from their party should Obama make a major push on immigration, they will almost certainly not be joined by Republicans in states with large Tea Party factions and low Latino populations; for these Republicans the "golden bridge" will not be the abandonment of the Tea Party for an immigration-driven compromise with the President but rather a retreat from compromise towards solidarity with the Tea Party.

Should all of this come to pass the long term result will be almost inevitable. As each faction of the GOP moves away from the party center and towards either compromise with the President or antagonism towards him the middle will break and the tension already evident within the GOP will rend the party in two. Republicans will face bitter primary races in numerous states, Tea Party loyalists will run third party candidates in the more hotly contested ones, and with the conservative vote split for the 2014 mid-terms, Democrats could well take control of the House while maintaining (against rather long odds, right now) a majority in the Senate as well..

Or it might not go that way. We shall see tomorrow if Obama is prepared to play political hardball or not with the GOP.

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