The Magazine

The Inconvenient Truths of 2008

Four things the party loyalists won't want to hear.

Feb 18, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 22 • By WILLIAM J. STUNTZ
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Each party's base has two inconvenient truths it doesn't want to hear. For Republicans, those truths concern immigration and the culture war. Most of today's illegal immigrant population is here to stay (along with their descendants) and will pay no significant price for getting here outside the legal channels. No presidential candidate can change those facts. On the issue that matters most to conservative Christians--abortion--the political phase of the culture war is over. The right lost --a pro-life initiative failed in South Dakota in 2006: If it can't win there, it can't win anywhere. Well, maybe Utah.

For Democrats, the relevant subjects are Iraq and federal spending. Discussions of the Iraq war in Democratic primaries have a bizarre quality: Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama speak as though the war is a lost cause. It isn't--unless one of them wins the election and pulls the plug, a scenario that Iran's proxies no doubt await eagerly. As for spending, the federal budget (and federal tax revenues) will leave no room for large, expensive, New Deal-style health and education programs. For the foreseeable future, domestic policymaking will have more to do with arranging incentives than with dispensing largesse: Think welfare reform, not Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

If Republicans fail to understand their unpleasant truths, they will lose in November, and lose badly. Democrats might win even if their heads remain in the sand: It's a Democratic year, as a comparison between the two parties' fundraising, turnout, and vote totals in the primaries to date suggests. But they will lose the chance to have the kind of public debate that shapes government policy--meaning, the kind that is based on truth, convenient and otherwise.

Consider the four issues in turn. The Republican base wants the country to reacquire control over its southern border, and wants to see the millions of illegal immigrants already here expelled or punished--because anything less rewards them for their violations. The first goal is both good policy and good politics. The second is a practical impossibility and a political disaster. No American government can afford to track down and expel, fine, or otherwise penalize 12 million of its residents: 17 times the number of convicted felons who enter prison each year (and today's imprisonment rate has shattered historical records). That much law enforcement is beyond government's capacity--a fact for which conservatives, of all people, should be thankful.

Not only will the illegals themselves remain, so will generations of their offspring: a large voting bloc that will be forever barred to the party that wanted to ship their parents and grandparents back to their Central American homes. If the penalties for illegally crossing the border are more than a pittance, immigrants will simply refuse to pay them and remain underground, and no future government will spend the money needed to catch and prosecute them. Given those circumstances, amnesty is less a policy choice than a statement of political reality: the rough equivalent of bankruptcy for a debtor who, without it, will never pay another creditor another dime. To put the point differently, the size of America's Latino population means that the nation's border control problem must be solved with that population's consent. As Donald Rumsfeld might put it, you do immigration reform with the immigrants you have.

If the crusade to enforce our current immigration laws against our current immigrant population was lost several million border crossings ago, the crusade to end abortion and reform the culture by means of electoral politics was lost several election cycles ago. In 1989, William Rehnquist's Supreme Court issued its decision in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, hinting that Roe v. Wade's reversal was just around the corner. That fall, Virginians chose the nation's first elected black governor--not in spite of the fact that he was pro-choice, but because of it. Political insiders have long understood what many pro-life voters are loath to admit: In any national election in which abortion rights were squarely at issue, the pro-choice side would win, and win big.