So for the last week or so, Senator Lindsey Graham has been making noises about following the lead of every other Republican in the Senate and taking his ball and going home. Since he’s the only Republican on two key pieces of legislation — working with Kerry on cap-and-trade, and Schumer on comprehensive immigration reform — this would freeze any further action on either of those by this Congress.
Now, I’ve heard the argument that neither of these, especially immigration, had a snowball’s chance in Charleston of passing the Senate anyway. Without taking a stand on that question one way or the other, I do think that we’ve seen over the last few months how rapidly legislative prospects can shift — and how perception that a bill “can’t pass” can become an obstacle to the bill’s passage. Furthermore, a lot of inside-the-Beltway speculation on immigration reform’s legislative chances is based on a particularly airtight, particularly silly sort of conventional wisdom, of the “No one I know is working on/covering/paying attention to this issue, so it must not be a high legislative priority, so I see no reason to work on/cover/pay attention to it” variety. This has led to a bizarre phenomenon where I’ve seen more attention paid to immigration reform from the editorial boards of local newspapers than from insidery blogger types. It’s gotten a little better post-HCR, but I think it’ll take a while for people to step back and realize just how tautological and easily reified the CW is, and reacquaint themselves with the facts on the ground.
Lindsey Graham, of course, has taken full advantage of the ease with which “it won’t happen” can be used as a euphemism for “I won’t do anything about it.” The media narrative has focused on the substance of his complaints, as part of the HCR aftermath, but somebody needs to call the dude out for attempting to present himself as a champion of immigration reform even as he’s making a big show of setting up the guillotine. Last Friday, the 19th, the WaPo published an op-ed from Schumer and Graham laying out their “framework” for bipartisan immigration reform legislation. That same day, Graham started grumbling to the press about the Dems’ use of reconciliation on health care, saying “If the healthcare bill goes through this weekend, that will, in my view, pretty much kill any chance of immigration reform passing the Senate this year.”
That’s been his line to the English-language press through this week. In his own statements, he’s been walking a fine line between threatening to walk away himself and making vague pronouncements about the lack of political will generally — presumably among other Republicans. (The notion that Senate Republicans were somehow willing to cooperate before reconciliation is, of course, so laughable that it points out how disingenuous the whole thing is. One also wonders what the heck Graham thought was going to happen with reconciliation on Thursday, when theoretically he could have yanked the WaPo op-ed.) The media has been eliding this carefully crafted distinction. It’s always sad when the press fails to capture the subtlety of weaselly doubletalk.
Even sadder is when they don’t notice just how weaselly it is because they’re watching the wrong Sunday morning talk shows. Because two days after Graham debuted his Cassandra mask for the English-language press, he went on Al Punto, Univision’s Sunday politics show, to express his support for reform. He didn’t ignore the reconciliation point — he mentioned that it would make things “difficult” — but that was hardly the topline message. Furthermore, the content of his appearance was much less important than the appearance itself. Graham doesn’t appear to have any problem being portrayed as the Man Who Would Kill Immigration Reform for the English-speaking DC media, whose incentives to favor partisan squabbles are stronger than their desire to see any particular piece of legislation pass. I’m hardly saying that desire to see legislation pass should be guiding journalistic coverage, but it’s an entirely different audience than the millions of people who watch Al Punto every week — whose desire to see immigration reform pass is much stronger than their appetite for finger-pointing.
This sort of code-switching is what Meet the Press, that other Sunday talk show, is supposed to call politicians out for. But it seems to me that there isn’t enough attention paid to Spanish-language media yet for that to happen. Until there is, of course, Graham and other politicians can continue to use “descriptive” statements about how “it won’t happen” to stand in for their own positions to the English-language press, while implicitly assuring Spanish-language audiences that they, of course, are doing what they can.
Permadisclaimer: my opinions on immigration politics and policy are entirely my own and are in no way associated with my employer or any other organization.