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Should the Democrats Pursue Immigration or Climate Change?

Democrats are on the verge of a fateful choice about their agenda between now and the end of the 111th Congress. Whatever its substantive merits, and regardless of how it will be judged once it goes into effect, the health care bill has not gained popular support since its passage, and the Democratic Party has continued to slip in the polls. The key reason, I’d suspect, is that people came to see the health care debate as a long diversion from their central concern—namely, jobs and the economy.

Elementary prudence would seem to dictate that the leadership would quickly pivot to the economy and would sustain that focus through the spring and summer. The small-bore jobs bill was a start, and the far more significant financial reforms will advance the case. But now, the leadership is moving toward, or backing into, months dominated by some combination of immigration and climate change—and of course there will also be a Supreme Court confirmation battle to fight. It is hard to believe that the people will respond favorably.

No doubt strategists on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue will point out that intensity is the key to midterm elections and that right now the intensity gap strongly favors the Republicans. The only way to counter-mobilize a somewhat demoralized Democratic base is to target the issues its components care about the most—immigration for Hispanics, climate change for young people—or so the argument runs.

That sounds too clever by half. In the first place, it’s very unlikely that either immigration or climate change legislation will succeed in this congress. If passing health care did not increase public support for Democrats, why will failing to pass immigration reform or climate change legislation work any better?

Second, Democrats seem to assume that they have nothing left to lose—that all the people who will vote against them this November have already made up their minds—so that focusing on non-economic issues dear to the base will be all gain and no pain. Again, I wonder. Might it not reinforce the message that Democrats are out of touch and unwilling to heed the people’s concerns? Over the past nine months, many independents who supported Democrats in 2006 and 2008 have moved away from the party. More could follow.

No doubt Democrats will try to blunt this reaction by emphasizing the connection between jobs and the economy, on the one hand, and immigration and climate change on the other. Substantive as that argument may be, I still don’t think it will work. In times of deep economic concern, average Americans are more likely to see threats than opportunities. Immigration reform and climate change legislation will always be tough, but they’ll be easier to accomplish when the middle class is feeling less anxious.

Granted, in the long term, the politics of immigration will certainly work in favor of the Democrats. Look at California: Republicans have never recovered from the legislation and rhetoric of Pete Wilson’s governorship. In the short term, however, the issue could push in the opposite direction. While the immigration debate of 2006-2007 divided Republicans, it also divided Democrats, and this year the issue will most hurt endangered Democrats in tough districts.

My skepticism about the Democrats’ emerging strategy has nothing to do with the substance of these issues. What’s been made public so far about the Kerry-Lieberman-Graham bill sounds sensible, and I served as co-convenor of a bipartisan task force that agreed on recommendations for comprehensive immigration reform. I disagree, rather, with the political calculation that seems to be driving this strategy.

Here’s why: 90 percent of the electorate is not Hispanic, and 85 percent is not young. Relatively modest shifts in voter sentiment outside these two groups could easily swamp increased turnout within them and turn all-but-certain Democratic losses into a rout of historic proportions. While the temptation to adopt a strategy of targeted micro-politics is understandable, Democrats should instead espouse a strategy of macro-politics focused on broad-based public concerns. If that means that Senate Democrats will have to choose a new majority leader next January, so be it. At least they’ll still have a majority. 

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