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The House Republican leadership announced its immigration “principles” today. They are trying to get as close to the Senate’s Gang of Eight proposal while using slightly different words in slightly different order. You would get legalization first with the border and internal enforcement to come sometime later (which is to say never). Byron York writes that some Republicans are hoping to bring these immigration principles to a vote only after the filing deadlines for Republican primary challenges have passed. That way House Republicans who vote for a Gang of Eight have two years before their constituents can depose them.

As York points out, passing immigration reform now is not a high priority for the public. Republicans are poised to make gains in the Senate in the November elections. Republicans would be in a stronger position to negotiate on immigration policy this time next year. Instead the House Republican leadership is choosing to start a civil war within their party. I can’t entirely tell if the wait-until-the-primary-filing-deadlines strategy is an example of invincible arrogance or the last desperate attempt to gull enough House Republicans to vote for a Gang of Eight-style law.

Amnesty, expanded low-skill immigration, and no serious immigration enforcement (a combination of policies called comprehensive immigration reform by supporters) became conventional wisdom of the Republican lobbyist-industrial complex after Romney’s defeat. This was probably some combination of cynicism and political conviction. Legendary lobbyist Haley Barbour led Mark Zuckerberg’s pro-Gang-of Eight “conservative” front group. Haley’s lobbyist nephew was one of the authors of the Republican National Committee’s election autopsy that called for the party to support “comprehensive immigration reform.”  

I don’t think it is just lobbyist greed (though I think that the greed plays a part). Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, House Speaker John Boehner, and probably most of the prospective 2016 Republican presidential candidates are part of the same culture. They all take their cues from the substantially overlapping memberships of the party’s Washington professionals and the business lobbies. The party’s rank-and-file might be opposed to Gang of Eight-style immigration policy, but for the Boehners and the Priebuses, the rank-and-file are somebody else. And the party’s rank-and-file is a somebody else that the lobbyist-industrial complex more fears than respects.

I suspect that the Republican lobbyist-industrial complex (and the politicians who take their cues from the complex) think of the party’s Tea Party base as a bunch of boobs who can take down an incumbent, but who lack political staying power. They see the Tea Party candidates as either political sectarians who lose winnable races (Sharron Angle, Ken Buck, Richard Mourdock) or as big mouths who get headlines for themselves even as they force the party to adopt self-destructive strategies (Ted Cruz). Anyway, the lobbyist-industrial complex is where the money is at. The Tea Party can’t expect much lasting influence if they can’t pay their own way. Where was the Tea Party when the big money donors cut off conservative Republican Ken Cuccinelli? When the last Tea Partier has gone home from the last Tea Party rally, the Barbour lobbying family will still be cashing checks and writing laws.

In a very distorted way, this analysis gets at some real weaknesses of the Tea Party. Tea Party politicians have often been more parochial than is healthy.  They were very concerned about seeming like “real conservatives” to Republican primary voters even though they were incomprehensible to persuadable general election voters. Howard Dean was able to go around his party’s established donor networks and raise vast amounts of money from rank-and-file liberals who were frustrated by their party establishment. While the Tea Party has millions of sympathizers, there is no similarly large culture of decentralized fundraising on the right. This leaves Tea Party conservatives in the position of trying to knock off establishment Republican candidates in the primaries and then hoping the establishment will pay the bills in the general election.

Mike Lee is a Tea Party senator who is working toward an outward-looking agenda. He is trying to craft populist proposals that will cut taxes on working parents. That is admirable, but Lee has generated less grassroots enthusiasm than Ted Cruz. That is somewhat to be expected. Lee is trying to expand the party’s coalition. It is a slow process. Cruz is trafficking in established narratives.     

Two of the big advantages of the lobbyist-industrial complex is that they can plausibly argue that they are the ones in the party who are making a concerted effort to win over the median voter and they are the ones who are footing the bills. For all that, the lobbyist-industrial complex still fears the party’s rank-and-file. If the Tea Party Republicans show that they can expand the party’s vote (rather than just get cheers from the party’s core) and develop effective general election-level fundraising networks, they won’t have to defeat the lobbyist-industrial complex. The lobbyist-industrial complex will run (with feigned enthusiasm) to ally itself with the Tea Party.     

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