It's no surprise that the Republican Senate failed last week to figure out a way to deal with illegal immigrants. The whole issue is a political nightmare for the governing party.
If the Republicans had cracked down too much on the illegals - as suggested by the House GOP - then they would have risked alienating the fastest-growing electorate in American politics, one that Karl Rove has been coveting for years. Illegals can't vote, of course, but legal Hispanic voters have already demonstrated, most notably in California, that they view GOP attacks on illegals as a blanket insult on their ethnicity.
Yet if the Senate Republicans had managed to pass a program that would've paved a road to citizenship, they would have risked infuriating their core conservative followers - who have been agitating for the GOP to show some guts on border enforcement. In terms of short-term politics, it's probably just as well that the Senate's compromise bill collapsed last Friday, because any plan that looks remotely like "amnesty" would be an invitation for the GOP conservative base to boycott the 2006 congressional elections.
In other words, Republicans risked alienating either the voters they want to have in the future, or the voters they have right now. Hence their paralysis.
But the problem now is that, by doing nothing, they risk alienating both groups. This is why Matt Lewis, a grassroots Republican strategist, wrote yesterday: "There is no doubt (that immigration) is a wedge issue that puts Republicans in a very unfavorable position." And political analyst John McIntyre, co-founder of realclearpolitics.com, warns that Republicans face "a growing disaster" on this issue.
McIntyre, who is often tough on Democrats, is blunt about the pending House GOP bill (which would essentially reclassify illegals as criminals). McIntyre says this bill "is killing Republicans in the Hispanic community." Yet he says that an illegal-friendly law is also perilous:
"For a conservative base already demoralized by a Republican-led Congress incapable of cutting spending and frustrated by a war that is either portrayed as floundering (or actually is floundering), abdication of responsibility on the illegal immigration mess may be the last straw that compels many conservatives to sit on their hands this November."
By the way, the congressional Democrats aren't totally unified on the issue. Most favor some kind of path to citizenship, which puts them in bed with the big business interests that want labor at the lowest possible wages. That doesn't necessarily sit well with working-class Democrats who worry about wage depression - or with the party's African-Americans, many of whom are low-skill workers.
But the Democratic schisms aren't nearly as wide, and, more importantly, they're not running Washington. They don't have majority at stake. And nd, unlike the GOP, they don't have a president who seems "rudderless" (in McIntyre's word) on this issue.
Bush has long prided himself as a leader on immigration, somebody who wanted to ease the way for illegals to become "guest workers." Now he's rather see the lawmakers take the lead and take the hits. His current laxity is a testament to his waning political capital.