There is a new breeze blowing through Washington this week. Yes it has hit 70 degrees outside. Spring is in the air, and it has lightened everyone's step a bit. But the real change is what is happening in the governing party and in the Capitol. The people's business is starting to get done.
It has been a remarkable few weeks here in DC. A payroll tax cut for small businesses to help provide a modest boost to the economy was signed into law, passing the Senate with 11 Republican votes. A serious bipartisan immigration reform plan outline was advanced. The final financial regulatory reform package is taking shape. The President offered up a thoughtful vision on how to improve the nation's education system, and is about to pass a major overall and expansion of the college student loan program. The FCC released a powerful vision for the future of broadband and the internet in the US. Competitive - and what we all hope were fair - elections were conducted in Iraq. And of course, the big one - modernizing and improving our health care system - is close to passage.
After a fitful first year, the Democrats are learning, however clumsily, to become the governing party. None of the three Democratic leaders - Obama, Reid, Pelosi - have ever been in their position when the Democratic Party was in such a strong position with the public, or had so much power in Washington. Democrats have more seats in Congress and received a higher vote share in 2008 than in any time since the 1960s. Barack Obama was not yet age ten the last time Democrats were in a similar position in DC, and frankly, the years of conservative ascendancy, which kept the Democrats on the defensive and largely out of power, left an entire generation of politicians more used to challenging the power of others than wielding it themselves. And it has shown over the past 14 months.
This new day for Democrats - huge Congressional majorities, a country tempered by failed conservative policies, a significant Party ID advantage, and a powerful and growing majority coalition - is unlike any time we've seen in Washington in at least 40, if not 70 years. The Democrats have clearly needed time to learn how to be a governing party, to align their interests, manage complex legislation, bring along a lot of new staff, Senators, Members of the House, and a young President into a coherent team. It has been a bumpy process - no big surprise - but there are signs this week that this new 21st century Democratic Party is finding its way, learning how to manage the new circumstances, do what is required to move the nation forward. It is learning how, after the end of the conservative ascendancy, to become a governing party.
In 2007, Peter Leyden and I wrote an article called The 50 Year Strategy, which argued that the failure of conservative politics and the emergence of a "new politics" of the 21st century offered the chance for the progressive movement to build a new and durable progressive era, and usher in a re-alignment in American politics. I still believe, deeply, that this opportunity is very much present today. With strong leadership and the courage to tackle the nation's most important problems, it is still very much within the center-left's grasp. And in many ways this question - could the Democrats seize the historic opportunity they had to realign politics, and usher in a new era of reform and progress? - has been, and remains the single most important question in American politics today. This morning, the chances of the Democrats seizing the moment - and the conservatives continuing to make equally historic political miscalculations - seems ever more possible.
London - Am over in London to check in on the latest in politics here, and give some talks on American politics. I will be offering up a few reports from here over the next few days, and will start with this one now:
- Recent polls show the Tory leader David Cameron dropping, and Labour leader Gordon Brown gaining. With the general election campaign likely to start in the next few weeks, there is a growing chance that Labour might hold on and repel the Cameron and Tory assault of recent years. This is going to be an incredible campaign, featuring among other things, the first set of televised debates between the major party candidates in British electoral history.
- Excited that the White House held a series of meetings on immigration reform yesterday, and continue to show interest in moving it despite a very crowded agenda. An upcoming march for immigration reform is forcing DC political leaders to not forget about the need to deal with our broken immigration system as soon as possible.
One troubling rhetorical change we've picked up in recent months from some involved in this debate is the changing language around undocumented immigrants. What we've all fought for in recent years is granting immediate legal status and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, once they have paid a fine, gone to the back of the line, commit to learn English and undergo a background check. But what we've seen from some leaders recently is an argument that we must offer a "change in status" to the undocumenteds, or to "legalize them," dropping the rhetorical commitment to citizenship.
Language matters in politics. You need to say what you mean, and mean what you say. If we are going to offer citizenship then it is better to say it, build the case for it, for if it is in the bill it is going to be vigerously debated. And it is better to start the debate making the case for your ideas then somehow believing you can duck a tough part or part you don't like, or come to the proposal defensively late in the game.
Additionally, right now a set of strong voices are challenging the idea of keeping a provision of the old McCain-Kennedy bill which would allow for 200,000 visas a year for low-end workers. The argument behind their opposition is that by creating a pool of "guest workers" we will be driving down wages of people at the low end of the workforce, and create a pool of workers capable of unfair exploitation. Their argument is, essentially, that there should be no guest worker programs in the US, it is inconsistent with good economics and American values, and that this provision needs to be dropped from a final bill.
If I were among those who agreed with this argument then I would be very concerned that the strategic drop of the phrase "path to citizenship" is leaving open the possibility that the 11 mllion undocumenteds could during the course of the legislative compromises ahead become legal without citizenship, creating a guest worker pool of not 200,000 but 11 mlllion people. And for those who have fought hard for CIR for many years - as we at NDN have - the idea that there is rhetorical retreat on this core provision should be greeted with much greater outrage than it has.
Dropping the phrase "path to citizenship" is both bad politics and bad economics. Advocates for reform will have to make their case to the American people why we want to do more than offer legalization. The public will be with the reformers on this one, as polling data and coming sense dictate that the American people would never accept a guest worker program of 11 million people. It is inconsistent with our values and terribly economics. Those advocating for a path to citizenship are on very strong economic and political ground, and should not in any way retreat from this part of this important debate even before it has begun in earnest.
There simply is no constituency in America for a "path to legalization" and it should be rhetorically scrapped as soon as possible.
Given that much of last year was squandered on a health-care debate that has yet to produce an agreement, and given that Americans are clamoring for the administration to focus on jobs and the economy, immigration has fallen far down the priority list, for both the president and Congress. "I don't think there's been a diminution in the desire to do it," says Simon Rosenberg of NDN, which has also pressed for an overhaul. "But there's a greater recognition that the pipeline got backed up in 2009." The top two priorities now, he says, are a jobs bill and financial-services reform. "If those get done, and Washington is working better, then I think other things will be possible this year." Even, perhaps, immigration reform, though he says it may well get pushed to 2011.
As the New York Times reports this morning, there is a new legislative pipeline now. If the White House and Congress can pass jobs and financial services reform bills quickly, then the basket of other issues waiting for consideration - immigration reform, energy/price on carbon, education reform, transportation, a DOHA treaty, even health care now - will get put into play. A lot now depends on what happens with these two bills now, and for those wanting progress in these other areas a good plan would be to help get these other two bills passed, quickly.
The President might consider bringing the Senate and House leadership in for an extended set of discussions next week on how best to get the differing approaches to these bills reconciled as soon as possible, and not leave it to the whims of the Committee process alone to help determine their fate. That is perhaps the greatest lesson from 2009 - more centralized and cooperative management by the governing party is required for the President to get done all that he wants done in the coming years.
For those wanting to reform our badly broken immigration system do not lose heart. The President and much of Congress want to get it done, and a lot of prep work has been done in 2009 to prepare for the fight when it comes. For an issue like this timing is going to be key. The White House and the Senate and House will have to work closely together, in a very coordinated way, to keep the immigration reform debate from spiraling out of control. Decks will have to be clear, leaders aligned, confidence high. I'm not sure we are there right now, but I also think that day is not all that far down the road. We will need to keep the pressure on, keep making our case to more people, show both determination and patience, and as the President has said, never quit.
In a message I sent out to our supporters across the country earlier today, I talked about how the resignation of Lou Dobbs and the defeat of an amendment meant to disrupt the census and reapportionment were signs that the advocates over tolerance could prevail in direct, frontal battles with their opponents. To me these recent victories have helped improve the environment for what will be the next great battle in this on-going struggle, next year's fight to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
In a speech this morning Department of Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano made clear that the Administration is serious about moving immigration reform legislation next year. In my own interaction with the Administration these last several months I have come to believe that they are serious about moving forward next year, and are in the process of putting in place the strategy and the plan to get it done. The NY Times has more about the speech and the Administration's plan here.
For advocates for comprehensive immigration reform this had been an exciting week. We have had some important victories, and have seen the Administration's reaffirm their commitment to act soon. So I end my work week hopeful that the stars can align next year to allow us to finally getting around to fixing our broken immigration system, a reform lthe American people have been waiting for for far too long.
Fresh from his impressive performance in his President campaign (he consistently received a full 1% in almost every GOP primary poll, and dropped out before the voting began), national anti-immigrant leader Tom Tancredo is considering a run to become the next Governor of Colorado.
Learn more about this development, including dramatic video of his recent "walk-off" TV appearance, here.
From an editorial today in the NYTimes, "How To Waste Money and Ruin the Census" -
With the start of the 2010 census just a few months away, Senator David Vitter, a Republican of Louisiana, wants to cut off financing for the count unless the survey includes a question asking if the respondent is a United States citizen. Aides say he plans to submit an amendment to the census appropriation bill soon.
As required by law, the Census Bureau gave Congress the exact wording of the survey’s 10 questions in early April 2008 — more than 18 months ago. Changing it now to meet Mr. Vitter’s demand would delay the count, could skew the results and would certainly make it even harder to persuade minorities to participate.
It would also be hugely expensive. The Commerce Department says that redoing the survey would cost hundreds of millions of dollars: to rewrite and reprint hundreds of millions of census forms, to revise instructional and promotional material and to reprogram software and scanners.
During debates in the Senate, Mr. Vitter said that his aim is to exclude noncitizens from population totals that are used to determine the number of Congressional representatives from each state. He is ignoring the fact that it is a settled matter of law that the Constitution requires the census to count everyone in the country, without regard to citizenship, and that those totals are used to determine the number of representatives.
Changing the survey now would be a disaster for the census and for American taxpayers. The Senate should defeat any and all attempts to alter or delay the 2010 count.
We here at NDN agree. Later this morning, NDN wiill join 10 other groups in a press conference asking the Senate to reject the Vitter-Bennett effort to disrupt the census and reapportionment. Last week I sent this letter to every Senator asking them to oppose these efforts in the days ahead.
Check back later for more from our press conference.
Christina Bellantoni at Talking Points Memo has a must read piece up on the new Bennett Vitter Census Amendment. It includes a must watch video of Senator Bennett making the case for his amendment.
Whatever one thinks of the idea of adding another question to the census short form at this very late point in the process, focus must be put on Bennett's stated intent - to count the undocumented immigrants in the U.S. so as to deny their use in the upcoming, every ten year reapportionment process.
This new Bennett led effort seems to be, among many other things, a direct legal and political assault on the 14th Amendment to the Constitution:
Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed
The 14th Amendment was designed, of course, to correct the infamous "three-fifths" clause in the original Constitution, which relegated a class of people to be something much less than the rest of us. It is extraordinary that in the first year of the Presidency of the first African-American President the Senate is seriously considering an amendment which so directly challenges the integrity of the 140 year old legal framework which enabled, for example, Michelle Obama's family to move from slave, to free, and today, to the White House.
There are rumors afoot today that some Democratic Senators and moderate Republicans are considering joining with Bennett and Vitter on this amendment next week, giving them enough votes to pass it. Before they do they and their staffs better do their homework, and come to a better understanding of the real intent behind this seemingly innocent legislation - to attack the legal framework of the modern civil rights era, to discourage immigrants from participating in the census itself, and to launch a divisive and racially charged campaign over who we are today, and who are becoming.
As I wrote in an essay a few weeks ago, Waking Up to the Coming Battle over the Census, the Republican assault on the census and reapportionment will not end next week even if the Bennett-Vitter Amendment is voted down. This is going to be a titantic battle, next year and throughout the two year long reapportionment process. My essay looks at a recent WSJ op-ed which layed out the logic of this fight, which, included, incredibly a reference to the intent of the original Constitution, which of course had been, let us say, not so good on these matters of race and has needed some significant improving. Our own Rob Shapiro, who helped oversee the preperation of the last census, also weighed in last week with his own take on all this.
Those who have a role in ensuring a fair and accurate census and reapportionment need to begin engaging now in this fight, and not allow the other side to score early and significant victories before every one has their teams and plans together. The battle has been joined, and it is time to jump in, hard.
One of the best ways of course the nation has to neutralize this effort will be to pass immigration reform next year, giving the undocumenteds legal status, and thus rendering Bennett, Vitter and all their soon to be vociferous allies mute.
Here's the video of Senator Bennett making his case:
In an essay yesterday (which is still running on the front page of the Huffington Post), Waking Up To the Coming Battle Over the Census, I talked about the very real possibility that the national Republican Party will mount a sustained effort to undermine the Census next year because of the Constitutional requirement for it to count all people, including undocumented immigrants. One could easily imagine Rep. Joe Wilson, for example, leading this effort.
Yesterday we came across this story from the Salt Lake Tribune, which reports on a new bill just introduced in the United States Senate by Sen. Bob Bennett which attempts to identify the undocumented population and bar them from contributing to the reapportionment process. From the news article:
Bennett, a Utah Republican who faces a tough re-election effort, introduced a bill last week that would add an 11th question to the Census forms asking if the person is a citizen or legal resident. He wants to exclude undocumented immigrants from the count used to apportion seats in the U.S. House.
"It does not make any sense for congressional seats and the Electoral College to be determined by a process that unfairly provides the advantage to those communities with high illegal populations," Bennett said in announcing his legislation.
The question Bennett raises, and is raised by the authors in the Wall Street Journal in my post yesterday, is should the undocumenteds be counted? The 14th Amendment says:
Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed
The interpretation of this question for these many years is that, yes, everyone must be counted. And certainly the 2010 Census is designed to do just that. But given how the national Republican Party played politics (successfully by the way) with the Census and reapportionment process the last two times the nation went through this, we should expect another run this time too. And my guess is that despite the Constitutional requirement to count everyone most/many Americans would agree with Senator Bennett - why should places like Arizona gain at others expense through the presence of what will clearly be labeled "illegals?"
Which is why this debate could end up being so tough for those elected officials, including the President, required to defend the constitutionality of the current census strategy - because for many it will seem like it "makes no sense."
So how to avoid what could become a very ugly and divisive fight, pitting region against region, community against community, immigrants vs native born?
Pass comprehensive immigration reform prior to the start of the census count, making the "illegals" legal and finally fixing the broken immigration system once and for all.
Open to other ideas too. Feel free to share 'em. Anxious to hear your thoughts on this.
Jill Lawrence of Politics Daily takes an interesting look this morning at the politics of Hispanics and immigration reform. It includes this passage, which starts with a reference to President Obama's speech to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute last week:
in a speech punctuated with the phrase "todos somos Americanos" (we are all Americans), Obama also reiterated his commitment to fixing what he called a broken immigration system. If anything, he said, the health debate "underscores the necessity of passing comprehensive immigration reform and resolving the issue of 12 million undocumented people living and working in this country once and for all."
The two commitments amount to a strategy: Prove you're tough on enforcement before asking Congress to approve a path to legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants. There's every probability that most conservatives will resist that idea in 2010 as mightily as they have for the past few years. But if comprehensive immigration reform passes with few or no GOP votes, Obama and his party will have a lock on the Latino vote at least through 2012. If the immigration debate inspires anti-immigrant sentiment or candidates, congressional Democrats could benefit from heightened Latino turnout in 2010.
Latinos still rate Obama very high in polls, suggesting they understand his reasons for delaying action on immigration. But 2010 is their limit. "The disappointment of Latino voters will be profound" if immigration reform doesn't happen next year, NDN president Simon Rosenberg, whose group studies the Latino vote, told me. If Obama and his party delay the bill further, or their efforts look half-hearted, he added, "there will be costs. It will not be pain-free."
I've been thinking a lot these last few weeks about Glenn Beck, assault weapons at Presidential forums, Lou Dobbs, nullification, Rep. Joe Wilson, the re-emergence of FAIR and other hate groups, the Southern Strategy and the conservative movement's descent into a reactionary, incoherent nihilism.
I attempted to put some thoughts together into a video essay this afternoon. Not sure I totally nailed it but check it out and let me know what you think: