Winning the Border Skirmish

“Honey, you know, I’d go to the end of the world for you!”

“Yes, but would you stay there?”

That classic humorous exchange is being reenacted in real time in the recent immigration debate. The illegal immigrants argue that the proof of their love is the fact that they crawled in through the window when Uncle Sam wasn’t looking. We respond that if they really loved us, they would abide by our rules. So I guess we can write a new version of that joke. It would go like this:

“Honey, say ‘Yes’ and I promise to respect you in the morning.”

“How about if I say ‘No’ and you can respect me right now?”

Or like this:

“Honey, I want to show you my love now, and I promise to respect you later.”

“How about if you show me your respect now and I promise to love you later?”

This tense standoff (Note to Legal: can I say ‘Mexican standoff’?) provided an opening for President Bush to step in and split the difference. Yes to National Guard at the border, no to mass deportations. Yes to ending ‘catch and release’, no to ending ‘come and work’. You can still come here to offer cheap labor and eventually become a citizen, or come here in labor and produce a newborn citizen. A classic chess move where everyone is left feeling rooked. (My dear friend, attorney Guillermo Sostchin, just passed away on May 12; may he rest in peace. He told me: “Lawyers say that if one side gets up from the table happy, it obviously wasn’t a very good compromise.”)

That’s all satisfactory, or vaguely dissatisfactory, concerning immigration per se. But as veteran observers of the political scene, we have to pause a moment and absorb the fact that a new threshold has been crossed, one that should have Republicans dancing jigs and stopping traffic across the fruited plain. For the first time, for the very first time, an issue that had its genesis in a liberal maneuver has been forced by a conservative backlash to land to the right of where it started.

Here’s the usual scenario. Some lib, say Kennedy after a libation, proposes some liberal expenditure that shrinks our liberty. For example, let’s raise the minimum wage from six bucks to eight. The media backs it up with pictures of starving families. Some Hollywood star makes a statement; after all, he just went up from six to eight million a picture. The conservatives, scrambling on defense, cry foul. The talk shows interview Milton Friedman who says it’s bad economically. The President makes some wishy-washy statement that could mean most anything. Finally, they settle at seven dollars, with the conservatives declaring victory for blocking the eighth.

Thus, even with a conservative majority, most legislation ends up left-o’-center, so long as the Dems are the fraternity that does the initiations. This has been a pattern of long duration. The only time we get legislation moving rightward is on the rare occasions when the Republicans get ahead of some issues, as in the Contract With America. Indeed, even as no child is left behind, Republican adults are usually left in the dust.

Nor is there any redder flag than seeing McCain’s name on a piece of legislation. That’s a sign for conservatives to grab their flashlights and dehydrated soy rations and crawl into their air-raid shelters until the worst passes. The good Senator has a clever strategy of voting quietly conservative but being loud in his leftward lurches. This way he can point to a 96 percent conservative rating when he’s on talk radio, but he can be hailed for McCain-Feingold and the Gang of Fourteen when he’s on television.

So when the McCain-Kennedy (motto: ‘It’s not amnesty’) Amnesty Bill fired the first shot in the immigration wars, with cover fire from migrating mobs of malcontents, it was déjà vu (or La Cucaracha) all over again. Or so we thought. Except this time folks pushed back. The base was heard from; in polls, on blogs, on talk shows, in letters to the editor, in calls to their representatives. And the politicians gave. They gave at the office. Finally. No one dreamed that making noises for amnesty would lead to National Guardsmen at the border.

The lesson is strong. Pushing back can give you pull. This will make liberals think twice before opening a subject for fear they may lose ground. I suppose, then, that we can write one last joke:

“Honey, I bought you a hand mixer for Mother’s Day.”

“Good, I’ll buy you a lawn mower for Father’s Day.”