When it comes to Washington politics, the old rules of cause and effect don’t seem to apply, at least not in a logical way. They never really did, to be honest, but the rules of engagement keep bending ever further from the pull of common sense.
For years, leaders in Congress have debated, sparred and battled over trying to reform and revise the nation’s immigration laws to — depending on the focus of the particular legislation — tighten the borders, create a legal path for millions of illegal migrant workers in the U.S. or both, in some combination.
The closest they came was in the mid-2000s, with both chambers and President George W. Bush on board with a bill to accomplish just that. But congressional leaders, Republicans in particular, got an earful from their constituents and were inspired to change course, and reform plans have stalled since then. Many point to that uprising as the springboard to what eventually became the tea party movement, which crystallized a few years later in a similar scrap over health care reform.
Fast forward to last week. Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the GOP’s House majority leader and a rising star in the party perhaps ticketed for higher office in the future, went down in a shocking primary defeat to little-known Dave Brat, a college professor backed by — yes, it’s back — the tea party.
And one of the key issues in the campaign that experts say resonated in Brat’s favor was the belief Cantor was too willing to give in on immigration reform, or “amnesty,” as its opponents term it.
So now the chances of any type of immigration bill making it through Congress in the foreseeable future are even slimmer, because of Cantor’s absence and now with more GOP legislators again running for cover from the issue to avoid his fate.
The headlines just days earlier were that the tea party’s influence may have faded, or been overstated to begin with, based on other easy victories by GOP mainstreamers like Senate leader Mitch McConnell. Clearly, though, muscular pockets of the party remain entrenched and aren’t retreating.
The whole idea of the “tea party,” in fact, defies clear description. There isn’t one tea party; there are many of them, and their issues and focus vary from state to state, district to district. What began as a libertarian movement to re-establish constitutional limits on government and reject “go along, get along” politics has morphed into a more strongly conservative enterprise more aligned with the Republican mainstream. But not always, as we saw in Cantor’s loss.
Defining the tea party seems as hard as predicting its influence, which may wax and wane for a while. It remains an X factor in GOP politics, leaving establishment leaders wondering when and where the tricorn hats will show up and shake things up. It’s a throwback to the classic scene in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” when the titular outlaws were trailed by a persistent posse and kept asking, “Who are those guys, anyway?”
However one feels about the tea party, it’s good for someone to rattle the powers-that-be now and then. There’s nothing wrong with a grass-roots push built on a sincere belief that government has strayed too far from its “for the people” foundations, even if that ideal has evolved into something else over time.
Anyway, American politics always has been messy and built on the concept of peaceful revolt, the likely way for a nation so large and diverse and forged by revolution to be governed.
Yet it is a shame that one primary election in one district in one state, and with a small voter turnout to boot, can derail what should be a sensible compromise on a key issue — perhaps because, for many ideologues, the words “sensible” and “compromise” do not go together.
We believe, as do many tea partyers, that the nation should do a better job of enforcing the laws already in place. Ignoring them is never an option, and until laws are amended and guest worker programs made more viable, violators must be dealt with.
But it’s also a practical notion to find a way to document migrant workers who provide a key labor force in many industries: Agriculture needs fruit and vegetable pickers, hospitality needs maids and gardeners and construction needs painters, roofers and carpenters.
The overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants are hardworking, taxpaying, family-oriented people who merely want to earn a good living here because they can’t in their home countries. There are programs in place for such workers but they don’t function well and need to be changed so they do.
The goal should be to make the legal route to jobs in the U.S. easier to travel while making the illegal one harder. It’s not simple, but perhaps not as complicated as lawmakers have made it. And we don’t see that objective being inconsistent with the tea party’s original philosophies.
But extremists screaming in both parties’ ears — labor forces on the Democrats’ side, anti-immigrant nativists on the Republicans’ — have drowned out attempts to hammer out such a solution, even with recent presidents willing to support it.
One primary election with a handful of voters casting ballots, one incumbent beaten, and now 12 million immigrants forced to wait even longer for a card that lets them legally do what they’re already doing.
Politics is indeed a funny creature, even if most of us are not laughing.