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Republicans Killed the Border Deal. Now They Need a Reason.

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, anti-anti-Russia Republicans began using immigration as a pretext to oppose giving aide to Ukraine, saying we shouldn’t defend Ukraine until the Unite States had solved its border crisis. In response to this demand, Senate Republicans began negotiation an enforcement-only bill to reduce pressure on the border. A few weeks ago, when Senate negotiations on border security started getting serious, Donald Trump and his allies openly said they opposed any bill, sight unseen, because it would help President Biden’s election campaign. Then the bill emerged, and Republicans came out immediately in total opposition, without any counteroffers.

Now, in stage three, conservatives are explaining their completely principled reasons for rejecting this bill, which putatively have no relationship at all to the transparently political motivation originally floated by Trump et al.

The chronology — first Republicans demand a border fix to block a completely unrelated policy, then they say they don’t want a border deal because it would help Biden, and then they formulate substantive objections to the border deal on the table — is telling. But what are the arguments themselves? Have conservatives genuinely developed sound and thoughtful reasons to oppose a border-enforcement bill supported by the hawkish and generally Trumpy Customs and Border Patrol union?

A news story in the Wall Street Journal attempts to convey the anti-deal position. Republicans argue that creating a threshold of 5,000 daily border crossings to trigger a total border shutdown “particularly angered Republicans, who argued that level was normalizing too high a level of illegal immigration,” and those Republicans demand the level be set at zero.

The Journal story notes that a zero-crossing threshold — which would shut off all asylum claims, legitimate or not — has never happened. And indeed, the current threshold for triggering a shutdown does not exist at all. Reducing the threshold to 5,000 from infinity seems like an improvement, from the conservative perspective.

But that incremental improvement would, as Republicans say, “normalize” levels they still think are too high. So their logic is, “somewhat too high” is somehow worse than “way too high.”

Ross Douthat has a a sympathetic account of the Republican position that runs along similar lines. Douthat’s argument is that compromise legislation tends to benefit liberals. Enshrining a border compromise, therefore, will set the stage for further progressive advance over time:

Conservatives tend to assume that social policy in America works via ratchet. Some sweeping social change is ushered in by liberals. Then a conservative reaction puts some limits on the changes — but still sets a new equilibrium that’s much more left-wing than it was previously. This leaves conservatives as effective conservers of progressive victories, while the progressives themselves are free to prepare for the next big leftward lurch.

It is true that progressives have won victories over long periods of time by employing the incremental ratchet. First they create a small program, like Medicaid or the Earned Income Tax Credit, and over the decades they gradually make it available to more and more people, and increase the generosity of its coverage. Liberals have won quiet victories by negotiating even with Republican presidents for incremental expansions that add up to large social-welfare improvements with little attention.

But the immigration deal was not an upward ratchet of migration levels. It was a downward ratchet. The status quo, absent a deal, allows infinite numbers of migrants to come here seeking asylum. The bill imposes a ceiling where none existed before.

It’s true, as well, that conservatives would prefer the ceiling to be lower than 5000, but that’s exactly how ratchets work. You create a new policy, you find the bureaucratic capacity to implement it — in this case, hiring new agents and judges to process and enforce the new law — and, if it proves popular, you can go farther over time.

Douthat is describing a reason for conservatives to pass the compromise bill, getting their foot in the door and setting the stage for addition moves in their direction. But his conclusion is the precise opposite.

The fact that he presents this as a reason not to pass the bill is a fascinating window into the conservative psyche. If I were to analyze the pathologies at work here, it’s that conservatives have decided that practical governing is a game they can’t win. The conservative movement began by rejecting the New Deal root and branch, and hoping to overturn it completely.

Conservatives grew frustrated over the decades at their inability to achieve even small welfare-state rollbacks, and came to see the hard work of legislation and compromise as a witches’ brew. Liberals would always come out ahead with their tricky formulas and long-game patience. The only way for conservatives to win was through some kind of dramatic, revolutionary takeover that would smash the system. This revolutionary fever dream has taken different forms, from Goldwater to Gingrich to Ryan to Trump, but in its essence it always features a dream of the People seizing the machine from the secret masters and breaking it once and for all.

It is impossible for conservative to imagine that success can come slowly, less still through compromise with — shudder — the Democrats, whose willingness to support any bill is ipso facto proof that it is secretly a liberal trick. (This was the same logic conservatives used to talk themselves into rejecting President Obama’s efforts to cut a deal to reduce entitlement spending.)

Democrats handed Republicans something they’ve never been given before: an enforcement-only immigration restriction bill, which not only supplied more staff and resources to control the border, but actually forces the president to shut it down completely if migration levels get too high. Their motivation for rejecting this offer is political, of course. But beneath that political strategy is a pathological aversion to governing itself.


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