Did Newtown wreck Obama's second term?

A simple point from Alex Seitz-Wald. Amnesty is the big Democratic prize for Hopenchange 2.0 and there was no better time to muscle Republicans into it than in the first flush after their traumatic election loss last November. The RNC was already murmuring about rebranding the party to appeal more to Latinos; business groups, which have been waiting for immigration reform for ages, would have happily gone all in to pressure Republican fencesitters in Congress.

And then things changed.

Lanza’s rampage altered the debate in Washington. Suddenly, priority No. 1 wasn’t immigration reform but gun control. The base that had just elected Obama was clamoring for background checks and magazine-clip restrictions, threatening to desert the president before his second inauguration. Many in Washington, including Connecticut’s Democratic senators, were convinced that the much-feared National Rifle Association had become a “paper tiger.” The gun lobby’s muscle hadn’t been truly tested in almost a decade, and NRA head Wayne LaPierre’s bizarre press conference days after the shooting seemed to confirm that the emperor had no clothes.

That meant immigration would have to wait. The clock was ticking on both gun control and immigration, but Democrats moved ahead with gun control first, recognizing that as the memory of the tragedy at Sandy Hook faded, so too would the impetus for new laws. The Senate spent months on a bill, which eventually got whittled down to a universal background-check provision, before it finally died at the hands of a Republican filibuster in mid-April.

In the process, the administration fatally, and irrevocably, antagonized the populist libertarian Right, the same people whom mainstream Republicans and Democrats needed to stay on the sidelines for immigration reform to succeed. By engaging in such an emotional, polarizing issue so early on, Obama poisoned the (admittedly shallow) well of goodwill and the willingness to compromise by Republicans before his term even began in earnest. When a comprehensive immigration bill eventually did pass the Senate in late June with GOP support, the House opposition made clear that the bill had little hope of becoming law.

Fair enough. O’s base never would have forgiven him if he hadn’t seized the moment after Newtown to push gun control, and Democrats might have gotten an immigration deal on unusually favorable terms if they had pushed hard while righties were still licking their electoral wounds. It’s a missed opportunity for liberals. Two questions, though. One, per David Freddoso: Why didn’t Obama push amnesty in his first term if it was that important to him and his party? It’s true that immigration reform is dicey when the economy is as bad as it was in 2009 and 2010, but if O and Pelosi were willing to risk a ferocious electoral backlash in passing ObamaCare, they might as well have doubled down with immigration too. Why didn’t they?

The answer, I think — and this is proof of just how far back Democratic self-deception about O-Care goes — is that they didn’t really expect a backlash from health-care reform. They always believed, and still believe, that the public would come around on ObamaCare someday. As I recall, the lefty CW after it passed and Republicans started shaking their fists, warning of electoral revenge, was that the public just wasn’t used to the idea of reform yet and would gradually embrace the law. There might be more GOPers at the polls that November, but there would be more grateful Democrats too. You know how that turned out. One key difference between O-Care and immigration, though, is that Democrats always knew that the former would be party-line whereas the latter, per the efforts of people like McCain and Graham during Bush’s presidency, would attract some bipartisan support. It wasn’t crazy to postpone immigration reform, in other words, while they had a filibuster-proof Senate majority because they could always try to pass amnesty later with some Republican votes. Why risk an even stiffer backlash at the polls by passing two controversial reform bills instead of one if you didn’t have to? Stick with ObamaCare for now and wait on amnesty.

Two, more importantly: What makes Seitz-Wald or anyone else think that amnesty’s dead? It’s very much alive and will almost certainly pass before 2016. The one deep lesson Republicans took from 2012, no matter how wrong it might be on the merits, is (a) that they can’t win another election without closing some of the gap among Latino voters and (b) that immigration reform is an absolute prerequisite to getting those Latino voters to take a second look at the GOP. They’re not going to send their next nominee out there without something to show Latinos by way of immigration. It’s probably true that whatever ends up passing won’t be as much of a sweetheart deal for the left as an amnesty bill passed in, say, January 2013 would have been, but if the yardstick for a “successful” second term for O is passing a bill with some form of legalization, this term will be a success.

In fact, as I’ve said before, I think the disastrous ObamaCare launch actually makes immigration reform more, not less, likely. Boehner can’t make a deal with O when liberals are on the offensive; it’ll be seen as weakness and capitulation. If the GOP is on offense and O is on his heels, though, then Boehner has more room to maneuver. The more energized righties are and the more dejected lefties are about the midterms, the more Boehner will think he can get away with a big immigration sell-out with little fear of major consequences at the polls. In fact, since the president is typically held responsible for major policies enacted on his watch, some angry independents who disapprove of immigration reform may turn out in November to vote Republican even though reform will have passed with some GOP support. Most of the border hawks in Congress are on the right, after all; if you’re an average voter who’s disgruntled about amnesty passing, you’re more likely to identify with someone like Ted Cruz than with Harry Reid. All of which is to say, as long as Boehner thinks he has the political wind at his back because of ObamaCare’s endless pratfalls, he might be more inclined to make deals on other subjects.

The modern gold standard of disastrous second terms is Dubya’s and even he managed to get a big amnesty effort off the ground with Democratic help after Iraq and Katrina. That’s one more similarity to add to Ramesh Ponnuru’s piece today about how ObamaCare is O’s Iraq — as politically damaging as each was, neither was able to squelch immigration reform efforts. Amnesty failed in 2007 because conservatives, who’d spent two straight years on defense, finally found a rallying point to go on offense. That’s not the case this time; they’ve got ObamaCare for that. So what’s stopping a deal now apart from Boehner’s determination to remain Speaker in 2015?

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