A Theory Of The 2016 Conservative Apocalypse

A Theory Of The 2016 Conservative Apocalypse

By Francis Wilkinson, Bloomberg View (TNS)

Why so glum?

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson is the latest to ponder the apocalyptic cloud hovering over conservative America, warning that the morbid oratory of the Republican presidential campaign is making the party ill.

It’s a hard-knock, catastrophic life out there on the hustings. Christianity is criminalized (Mike Huckabee), the White House is “the world’s leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism” (Ted Cruz), and the likely Democratic nominee for president “believes in the systematic murder of children in the womb to preserve their body parts” (Chris Christie). And that’s just a sampling from the last Republican debate. In this crowd, the nightmares of Ben Carson and Donald Trump, the main targets of Gerson’s essay, are superfluous.

In any case, blaming the presidential candidates half misses the point; the entire conservative movement is packed into hell’s little hand basket. Immigration restrictionists bewail President Barack Obama’s chimerical “open” borders while millions of the dispossessed allegedly fix their sights on obtaining “free stuff” at the expense of honest (conservative) taxpayers.

When the hordes arrive, you’d best have guns and ammo ready. “Do you trust this government really to protect you and your family?” thundered the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre in a 2014 speech. Only a sap believes the government can protect him, even though he should absolutely believe that the government has the resources and will to confiscate some 300 million guns in private hands. “We’re on our own,” LaPierre concluded.

Abandoned, neglected, alone — yet nonetheless completely smothered by an all-encompassing big government: That is the conservative condition.

Wrenching changes in the economy are no doubt contributing to despair. Rising inequality is a particular challenge to conservative orthodoxy. The left has a ready target — the rich — and an all-purpose remedy — tax ‘em! — that conservatives are loath to adopt. But conservative explanations for soaring wealth among the richest and stagnation for everyone else can’t be very satisfying even to conservatives. Blaming a powerful, multi-decade trend on “Obama” or “crony capitalism” just doesn’t cut it.

Such particular discomforts exist within a broader context. Two trends, one domestic and one global, are bound to increase status anxiety; each complements and reinforces the other.

In the U.S., the white majority is in the process of giving way to a nonwhite majority around mid-century. It’s the sort of thing white people might not think much about it — until the nation elects its first nonwhite president, a handy and persistent reminder that their days in the majority are numbered. Multiple surveys and studies have indicated that many whites — especially conservative whites — are not looking forward to the transition.

Outside the U.S., a similar transformation is under way. U.S. hegemony is giving way to a multi-polar world and the rise of China as an increasingly powerful economic and geopolitical competitor. Amid civil wars, streams of refugees and Russian provocations, the U.S. appears helpless: interventions magnify chaos, retreat invites irrelevance. The whole globe seems a giant Hobson’s choice.

The erosion of U.S. global pre-eminence mirrors what whites are experiencing domestically. Job security has vanished, and even sinking unemployment hasn’t produced sizable wage gains. First, women and minorities wanted American jobs. Then the continent of Asia and the rest of the world got in on the action. Is it any wonder that non-college-educated white men form the backbone of the grievance party?

Economic uncertainty and status anxiety are hardly unique to whites, conservatives or the 21st century. But the double-barreled revolutions at home and abroad make the whole world, near and afar, seem up for grabs.

Whether the seeds of fear would sprout quite so robustly without the aid of a little demagogy is a reasonable question. As Gerson wrote:

Apocalyptic rhetoric is more than the evidence of historical ignorance and bad speech-writing. It leads to a distorted politics. If the United States has reached its midnight hour, it means that the institutions that have gotten us here are utterly discredited. The normal avenues of political reform are useless.

When the normal avenues can be deemed “useless,” extreme measures become self-justifying. The corollary, playing out in the 2016 Republican campaign, is that candidates are no longer forced to justify extreme rhetorical wares. The monsters they describe are taken on faith. After all, the voters swear they’ve seen them too.

Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg View columnist. Readers may send him email at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.

©2015 Bloomberg News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses a Tea Party rally against the Iran nuclear deal at the U.S. Capitol in Washington September 9, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Big Money’s Futile Search For A GOP Frontrunner

Big Money’s Futile Search For A GOP Frontrunner

Dec. 8 (Bloomberg View) — The New York Times has a well-reported article today outlining the desires of various Republican Party donors and bundlers to get behind a single establishment candidate in the 2016 presidential primary. There’s only one problem: That doesn’t seem remotely possible.

Yes, it makes sense to try to limit the intraparty war. The three potential establishment candidates — former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey governor Chris Christie and 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney — would presumably compete for the same donors and voters if they all enter the race. But each of the three has his own personal ambitions, core set of loyalists, individual and institutional strengths, and potentially fatal flaws. Why should any two such candidates cede to a third? And what of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker? Ohio governor John Kasich? Florida senator Marco Rubio? If they run, each will depend in some degree on establishment support as well.

Bush has all but dared the party to nominate someone else, saying that, if he runs, he won’t court Republican base voters so eagerly that he alienates the general electorate. He refuses to abandon his commitment to Common Core educational standards, which the base has come to perceive as ideologically sketchy and governmentally oppressive. Worse, he is unabashedly pro-immigrant in a party that has concluded that, at the end of the day, it really prefers a good deportation. Bush’s description of illegal border crossing as an “act of love” will prove a constant temptation to the devil perched on the party’s shoulder. Which of the candidates competing for the base’s roar of approval will resist the temptation to label Bush a quisling in the existential war against the Other?

Christie may be even less of a sure bet. A Department of Justice investigation into his subordinates’ creepy “Bridgegate” activities is yet to be concluded. Christie’s presidential calling card — his “character” — rides on his aggressive demeanor and the results of that investigation. But a long presidential campaign seems unlikely to serve his ambition. I have never been able to get over this Christie television ad from 1994 in which he sits with his wife and baby, and proceeds to lie to the camera about two Republican primary opponents. Yes, the ad is old. Yes, the office he sought was relatively small potatoes (a county board seat). But find me another top-tier presidential candidate who has used a family tableau with his wife — let alone his infant child — to falsely attack opponents. (Christie was subsequently sued by his opponents and, remarkably, settled out of court.)  Bridgegate. Babygate. All that shouting at regular people. Something is not right about this guy. A presidential campaign will almost certainly expose it — if the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey doesn’t first.

That leaves Romney. He’s competent, tried, true, tested. And the base — convinced that Romney’s 2012 outing proves that establishment candidates lack the real faith to win — will have conniptions if party elites try again to force him to the top of the Republican heap.

So if you’re a big Republican donor, or an ambitious bundler, who do you get behind? And how do you convince rival donors to join you? There is no favorite among the three, no overriding case to be made for any particular candidate. Which means that there is no overriding argument to rally Republican insiders representing various industries, regions and personal loyalties to abandon their personal stakes in one candidate and support a different candidate.

The only people who can clear the field are the candidates themselves. That’s usually the purpose of a primary. And it’s always the outcome.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Eric Garner Offers Boehner A Path To Redemption

Eric Garner Offers Boehner A Path To Redemption

Dec. 4 (Bloomberg View) — What does the death of Eric Garner, following a police chokehold, have to do with immigration? For House Speaker John Boehner, perhaps quite a lot.

Boehner has been trying to contain the Republican  reaction to President Barack Obama’s recent executive action on immigration. Boehner’s hopes of passing comprehensive immigration reform were dashed long ago. But he would still like to mute his conference’s most virulent anti-immigration voices — call it the Steve King caucus — to keep his party from becoming further identified with intolerance. (Thursday’s debate on the “Preventing Executive Overreach on Immigration Act of 2014,” a bill sponsored by Republican Representative Ted Yoho, won’t help. It essentially puts the party on record in favor of mass deportation. And the House passed it.)

Republicans are quick to mount the barricades against Obamacare or taxes on high incomes. When it comes to protesting injustice against the poor and marginalized, their reflexes can be unnervingly slow.

Senator Rand Paul shrewdly (and even bravely, despite some dissembling) has tried to shift perceptions that Republicans don’t care about racial minorities, speaking before black audiences and citing his belief,  however unreal, that the Republican coalition can bring in a substantial number of black voters in 2016. Confronted by the news of a grand jury’s refusal to bring charges against a police officer who put Garner in a chokehold, however, Paul whiffed. In effect, he focused his outrage on the supreme injustice of New York’s cigarette taxes rather than the loss of a man’s life in police custody.

Boehner’s reaction was both smarter and more humane. Asked about the grand jury decision, Boehner said, “The American people deserve more answers about what really happened here.” Significantly, Boehner also “hasn’t ruled out holding congressional hearings on the matter,” according to BuzzFeed.

Hearings chaired by Republicans would be good for the country and good for Republicans. They would establish precisely what protesters say they are fighting for: an assertion that “black lives matter” to the nation’s leaders and political institutions. At the same time, they would show that Republicans know how to be a party of all Americans, not just the white parts. And they would showcase Republicans grappling with a complex problem instead of unleashing the party demagogues on Benghazi for the umpteenth time.

The timing is auspicious. The Republicans’ aggressive turn against immigrants is highly unlikely to sit well with Hispanics and Asians. Black voters already shun the party by embarrassingly large margins.

It’s not all about political opportunism. Plenty of conservatives are genuinely appalled at the circumstances of Garner’s death. Thursday’s Department of Justice report on the Cleveland police department, released in the wake of a police officer’s fatal shooting of a 12-year-old boy there, underscores the need for a serious federal inquiry. Hearings would be good for everyone. Go for it, Mr. Speaker.

Photo: Talk Radio News Service via Flickr

The Fact — And The Case For Immigration Amnesty

The Fact — And The Case For Immigration Amnesty

Nov. 20 (Bloomberg View) — To understand the case for or against immigration amnesty, you have to start with The Fact: There are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Almost all of them came here under President George W. Bush, President Bill Clinton or even before.

Stating The Fact is important because you won’t hear it uttered by Republican politicians preparing to mount the barricades against President Barack Obama’s impending executive action. They love to talk about “border security.” Depending on the rhetorical needs of the moment, they relish tales either of the tyranny of a president who crushes opponents without remorse or of the weakness of a president who cowers in fear.

However, you will find it very difficult to get any of these politicians to discuss The Fact. Ohio governor John Kasich sort of did this week, and even sort of mentioning The Fact counts as courage. Indeed, it’s difficult to find a House or Senate Republican today who will even acknowledge The Fact, let alone propose to deal with it.

Yet even Republican hardliners won’t articulate support for deporting The Fact, regardless of what they or their constituents might secretly desire. By default, that leaves two choices: some form of the status quo or some form of amnesty.

The status quo has little to recommend it. If you are worried about The Fact driving down wages or hurting taxpayers, as some opponents of immigration reform are, the status quo is your enemy. It leaves millions without legal protection from labor exploitation. It also restricts economic mobility and access to credit. It makes investing in personal capital — education, skills — risky, and investing in a home or business even more so. The threat of deportation — keep in mind that the Obama administration has deported roughly two million individuals — also entails the threat of personal financial ruin.

Amnesty is offensive to Americans who view The Fact as a collection of lawbreakers. But making immigrants suffer in legal limbo, with the constant threat of deportation hanging over them and their loved ones, serves no practical or moral purpose. Will they become better people as they wait? Or, in lieu of deportation, is suffering itself the point?

Most Americans support an earned path to legalization and citizenship. That is precisely the course that the Senate endorsed in 2013 and the House rejected. If House Republicans had been willing to pass an earned path to citizenship, this controversy would have ended in 2013. Instead, the only legislation they passed was an attempt to strip young immigrants who had arrived as children — “DREAMers” — of the right to study and work here. That’s a very effective way to punish. Does it serve some other useful goal?

If the purpose of leaving The Fact unresolved is to condemn the lax immigration policies that preceded the Obama administration, then by all means wail away. But it won’t change the past. If the idea is to set an example to deter future immigrants, it’s a pointless exercise. A secure border can deter them. So can prospects for a better life at home. The enmity of U.S. politicians, however, is not terribly daunting to a Guatemalan mother fleeing a murderous gang that controls her neighborhood. In any case, focusing on the past or the future is just one more way of avoiding dealing with The Fact that is here and now.

So the question is whether illegal immigrants should remain in legal limbo, with their economic prospects blunted, their ambitions stunted — all for no gain whatsoever to the nation at large. (By contrast, citizenship for The Fact would lower the deficit and aid the economy).

In the U.S., of all places on earth, condemnation of The Fact on moral grounds is especially difficult to sustain. Illegal immigration isn’t exactly alien to these shores; it preceded the nation’s founding. In 1763, King George III drew a border along the Allegheny Mountains and prohibited settlement west of it. George Washington was among those who violated the law, speculating in land on the other side.

Our national character was forged in no small degree by our scrappy determined ancestors who risked their lives to get here and exhibited enormous grit to make it. Many were hated by those already here. No one is proposing open borders or amnesty for all forever. But The Fact isn’t going away. If amnesty is unacceptable, what do immigration opponents propose?

Photo: About 200 people gather on Aliso Street to watch a jumbo screen of President Obama’s speech on executive action on immigration during a rally outside the Los Angeles Metropolitan Detention Center on Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014, in Los Angeles. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Obama Charts A Risky Course On Immigration

Obama Charts A Risky Course On Immigration

Nov. 19 (Bloomberg View) — President Barack Obama initially tried to avoid the immigration action that he now seems determined to take. He let the Senate pass its own bill, and quietly waited for months on end for Speaker of the House John Boehner to muster something. When Boehner failed, he rewarded Obama’s patience by explaining that Republicans can’t pass immigration legislation because the president is untrustworthy, and that the president can’t act unilaterally because such action would… prevent the House from passing legislation.

In a sea of bad faith, Obama is now sailing solo. It may take some time for Republicans to chart their own course. A New York Timesreport today suggests that the Koch brothers — and the political money machine that they supervise — are not eager to see their investment in the Republican majority squandered on a government shutdown over immigration.

The Kochs seem pretty pragmatic. They want the Environmental Protection Agency neutered, support for green energy killed, and carbon emissions running wild and free. But immigration? They don’t seem to object: Illegal immigrants buy carpet and heat their homes, too.

The Republican base, of course, has a problem with immigration. The presence of immigrants who arrived or stayed illegally in the U.S. offends the base’s moral sensibility. In addition, base voters fear the immigrants are taking American jobs, absorbing American tax dollars and turning the nation a dangerous hue. The base wants the invaders repelled. It’s not a generous view. But it’s a coherent one.

Party leaders are at a loss to balance the demands of the base and the Kochs and the Chamber of Commerce and their own electoral ambitions. They can’t say they support deportation, and they can’t say they don’t. They can’t create a path to legalization and, fearing creation of another 11 million brown voters, they don’t want a path to citizenship.

Obama is about to put the Democratic Party on record for amnesty, enabling millions of immigrants to avoid deportation and, most likely, obtain some type of temporary work permits. The legal basis appears to be the executive’s “prosecutorial discretion.” My Bloomberg View colleague Ramesh Ponnuru points out that Democratic claims that previous Republican presidents used this tool do not justify Obama’s action, which would vastly exceed all previous efforts. At the Washington Post, Greg Sargent takes the opposite view, arguing that the action is generally within legal and political norms.

That debate will be thrashed out over the weeks ahead. Either way, there is an element of hypocrisy to the president’s plan — he has claimed before that he lacked the authority for such sweeping action and clearly wanted to avoid taking it. There is an element of political calculation: There are votes and coalitions at stake, and Republicans seem well poised to forfeit them. And there is an element of humane desperation: The absence of legal status thwarts human potential, and Republicans appear unwilling to remove the obstacles (since their base prefers to remove the people).

There is also an element of considerable risk. Yes, any executive action would be temporary. Yes, Congress could pass legislation to supersede it. But this could prove to be a turning point in the partisan polarization of Washington. Having reshaped itself in Newt Gingrich’s image, the Republican Party has proved increasingly willing to undermine democratic norms — and institutions — in hopes of inheriting the rubble.

If Obama is not departing from norms in this case, he certainly looks to be pushing the line. With a functioning Congress, large changes to immigration would rightly be the legislature’s prerogative. Of course, we don’t have a functioning Congress, and we do have millions of people living in limbo. It’s not hard to understand why Obama is doing this, and perhaps party relations in Washington really can’t get much worse. But I think they will.

Photo: President Barack Obama speaks on the midterm elections that saw his party lose the Senate during a press conference in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014, in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)

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Immigration Opponents Don’t Say ‘Deportation’

Immigration Opponents Don’t Say ‘Deportation’

Nov. 14 (Bloomberg View) — President Barack Obama appears ready to stake his claim on immigration with a sweeping executive action. This will produce outrage, fulminations and legislation on the opposite side of the immigration debate. One thing it won’t produce? A clear declaration of what exactly immigration opponents want.

Members of Congress speak constantly of their opposition to “amnesty.” They almost never mention the real-world consequence of denying amnesty to the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.: “deportation.”

Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama is a perfect example. Sessions led the charge in 2013 against the immigration reform legislation that passed the Senate with 68 votes. He is a vocal opponent of “amnesty,” and dismissed Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals as an “unlawful assumption of power to violate plain law of the United States.”

Writing in Politico on Monday, Sessions boldly asserted the righteousness of his cause:

On Election Day, Americans roared in protest against the president’s open-borders extremism. They rallied behind candidates who will defend the rule of law and put the needs of American workers and families first.

“Open-borders extremism” is an interesting characterization of the first president in memory who has overseen a net increase of approximately zero in illegal immigration. But enough about Obama. If Sessions opposes Obama’s policies, what policies does the senator support?

There are, after all, a finite number of answers to the question of what to do about millions of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.:

1. You can offer them a path to legalization and/or citizenship.

2. You can deport them.

3. You can maintain the status quo, in which the undocumented remain in the U.S. without legal rights or recognition (and perhaps “self deport” in accord with the wishes of Mitt Romney).

I asked Sessions’s communications director, Stephen Miller, which of these options Sessions supports. Here is his answer, via email:

Senator Sessions’ priority is to fight for jobs and wages for American workers. President Obama’s immigration plan — work permits for illegal immigrants and permanently doubling the admission of new foreign workers — helps open borders billionaires while slashing incomes and jobs for struggling families.

When I pointed out the obvious — that his response was a non-answer that wasn’t even pretending very hard — Miller sent me a courteous reply:

We just have an honest difference of opinion. We believe an American citizen has more of a claim to a job than say, for instance, someone who illegally remained in the U.S. after their visa was revoked by federal authorities. We believe Americans should get higher wages, not be replaced with lower-wage guest workers as Silicon Valley proposes.

I’d love to continue this back-and-forth but I’m going to be out of pocket for the next few hours.

So Sessions, who along with Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas represents the hard end of anti-immigrant views in the Senate, shrinks from saying he supports deportation. He loudly condemns the status quo. And he’s virulently opposed to amnesty.

The anti-immigrant forces have been on a two-year hot streak, sinking immigration reform in Congress and successfully exploiting opportunities, such as the spring and summer wave of Central American children at the border, to increase public fears and resistance to legalization. They enjoyed great success in the midterm elections.

They have all the marks of a potent, durable political force. They’re just too embarrassed to say out loud what exactly they’re a force for.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

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Win Or Lose, Republicans Are Still Big Wreck

Win Or Lose, Republicans Are Still Big Wreck

(Oct. 30, Bloomberg View) On the verge of victory in the midterm elections, the Republican Party looks no less shaky than it did on the verge of defeat in 2012. The base appears no less irate than at any other moment in the Obama era, and the party leadership’s plans look no more coherent or calibrated to the times.

House Speaker John Boehner’s policy speech last month at the American Enterprise Institute garnered little attention, perhaps because it was such a wee bitty thing, small and sad. (When your economic plan has five pillars and one is “tort reform,” you are really asking more of the 1980s than a creaky bygone decade can deliver.) Even some conservative economists can’t muster enthusiasm for the jumble of haphazard suggestions that constitute the party’s “jobs” agenda.

Perhaps that’s why my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru isn’t ready to break out the champagne. I’m betting on a Republican victory, but I’m also betting that will be the high point of Republican control of Congress. They still haven’t figured out whether a majority in both houses of Congress would require them to behave more responsibly, proving they can be competent, or more fanatically, showing they can better channel the base’s rage. It’s not clear that they will reach a conclusion soon.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told donors that if Republicans don’t use the next Congress to “prove we could govern, there won’t be a Republican president in 2016.” Politicodescribed McCarthy’s agenda with this shorthand: “Legislative cliffs are over.”

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell begs to differ. He told Politico that his game plan entails passing high-stakes partisan legislation and daring President Barack Obama to veto it at the risk of, yes, shutting down the government:

“We’re going to pass spending bills, and they’re going to have a lot of restrictions on the activities of the bureaucracy,” McConnell said in an interview aboard his campaign bus traveling through Western Kentucky coal country. “That’s something he won’t like, but that will be done. I guarantee it.”

“A lot of restrictions on the activities of the bureaucracy” sounds like a diplomatic way of describing a war on Democratic constituencies, which suggests McConnell would come down on the side of the old Representative Paul Ryan, who wanted to strip the poor of benefits, and not the new Paul Ryan, who seems to think maybe that’s unnecessary.

Conflict appears likely not only between House and Senate Republicans, but also within the Senate Republican caucus, which will include senators running for re-election in states including Illinois, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, which lean Democratic in presidential election years, and senators running for president, who will be constantly tempted to feed the base’s appetite for outrage.

A Republican president, of course, could make much of this unseemly tension go away. President Marco Rubio or whoever could come into office, express horror at Obama’s irresponsibility in allowing U.S. infrastructure to go to seed, and then initiate the kind of deficit-fueled spending that marked the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The Republican devotion to employment-killing spending cuts could be quickly forgotten, and Democrats would be left howling (something about hypocrisy, I suspect) into a cruel wind.

But without a Republican in the White House, which is the only known cure for any party’s agitation, Republicans are caught between their base’s hardened anger and the inflexible stances they have adopted to serve this master. Obama will continue to be both a foil and an excuse for Republicans’ inability to return the nation to a glorious past. The president will suffer along with his opposition, of course. But starting Nov. 5, Republicans will gradually begin transferring the fear and loathing they lavish on the president to a new target: Hillary Clinton. It should be a very inspiring two years.

AFP Photo/Mark Wilson

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Big Spenders Blow Big Money On Political Ads

Big Spenders Blow Big Money On Political Ads

Oct. 24 (Bloomberg View) — In department-store owner John Wanamaker’s famous estimation, half of all the money he spent on advertising was wasted; he just couldn’t tell which half. Watching the gobs of money thrown into television’s maw in the costliest midterm election in history, some political pros are beginning to wonder if the correct answer isn’t “both.”

“We may find out,” said Republican consultant Mike Murphy. “In the cheaper states we have hit crazy overkill.”

The expensive states are getting pretty goofy, too. Last week, with ample time for more spending before Election Day, the U.S. Senate race in North Carolina eclipsed the 2012 Senate race in Virginia to become the most expensive in history. In other battlegrounds, local television news programs, the traditional favorite of political advertisers, have been cutting back on news to make more room for more political ads. Time magazine reported yesterday that in Des Moines, Iowa, the NBC affiliate extended its nightly newscast by an hour to profit from the deluge, “but demand was still too great.”

The Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics, projects that the 2014 midterm elections will cost almost $4 billion. Even freedom-loving Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota thinks that might be a tad over the top.

Fortunately, all this advertising has produced a highly knowledgeable electorate, deeply versed in complex issues and prepared to make discerning judgments at the ballot box. With some exceptions. According to an October Pew Research Center poll, fewer than half of registered voters can identify which party controls each house of Congress. (It’s possible, however, that they know more about Ebola-laden terrorists at the border.)

I asked some political pros if they think that battleground states — especially those with highly competitive Senate races, such as Louisiana, New Hampshire and Georgia — are now saturated with political advertising, leaving voters incapable of absorbing any more (mostly negative) information.

Here are some responses, rendered via email except where noted.

“It depends,” said Republican strategist David Winston. “If it is a new topic or idea, people will listen. If it’s just a variation on a familiar theme, then less so as they have already heard it. Hearing a point the 96th time is not likely to generate a different reaction from when it was heard the 73rd time.”

Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg basically agrees that the persuasion phase of the campaign is exhausted. “Unless there is some new revelation about a candidate, I think there are diminishing returns to these ads,” she said. “I think the Get Out The Vote field effort is as important, if not more important, now.”

Republican consultant Ed Rollins sees a battered electorate that can’t take another 30-second detonation. “We are at a full saturation point and voters are tuning out the message,” he said. “The more money spent, the fewer voters are paying attention.” Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg concurs. Saturation? “Already reached it,” he said.

Democratic pollster Ben Tulchin says it ain’t over ’til it’s over. “The challenge is that very narrow slice of swing voters who don’t pay that much attention and don’t absorb a lot of what’s been going on,” Tulchin said. “So you can never do too much to win over that last wayward swing voter who doesn’t follow politics like us professionals. It takes A LOT to get through to them, and lots of media to do it.”

Democratic pollster Paul Maslin reckons that campaigns will surely have reached “sheer overkill at some point.”

But when?

The answer, of course, is elusive. And that, said former Democratic strategist Robert Shrum, is why the ads will never stop. “Everybody’s going to keep broadcasting because nobody can tell when that point is,” Shrum said in a telephone interview. “It doesn’t matter if there is a saturation point, because campaigns can’t know where it is.”

So maybe half the money candidates and political committees spend on television is wasted. Maybe far more at this hour. But with so many rich people writing checks, nobody cares.

Photo: smokeghost via Flickr

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Ebola And Terrorists Aside, Our Border Is Pretty Secure

Ebola And Terrorists Aside, Our Border Is Pretty Secure

Oct. 23 (Bloomberg View) — The U.S.-Mexican border has had quite a year. In the spring, it offered the spectacle of tens of thousands of Central American children (and some mothers) crossing, hoping to have their tickets punched for the American Dream. Now, with Ebola and Islamic State terrorists dominating our imaginations, the border features in political ads as the unhinged back door through which our nightmares enter.

Despite such earnest warnings from deeply sincere political candidates, the border is not actually so bad. Ebola and Islamic State terrorists do not appear to be crossing in overwhelming quantities. However, more than 2,400 unaccompanied minors did cross the border in September. That’s about 8,000 fewer than in June, when traffic peaked. September’s pace would put the U.S. on track for almost 30,000 children per year, flooding an immigration court system with a backlog of 400,000 cases. Still, it’s worth noting that the greatest challenge along the U.S side of the border right now seems to be migrant children.

The border will never be sealed; if land routes ever become impassable, migrants and traffickers will arrive by sea. It will remain a problem as long as desperation exists in the south and an enormous appetite for illegal drugs (and cheap labor) rumbles up north. For the most part, however, the future is looking up. Violent crime along the U.S. side has been trending down, even if yelling about it has not. Illegal immigration has also declined significantly over the past decade. Meanwhile, more than $1 billion worth of goods and more than one million people legally cross the U.S.-Mexico border daily.

I’m not the only optimist.

Princeton professor, Douglas Massey, a sharp critic of the U.S. border crackdown, envisions a more open, free-flowing border in 25 years. “That would be rational given that Mexico’s income is rising relative to that in the U.S., fertility is at parity with the U.S., and Mexico is becoming an aging society,” he wrote in an email. “The boom in undocumented migration is over for good, in my opinion, and at some point the cost of massive border enforcement will exceed its symbolic political value.”

Stuart Anderson, a policy advisor at the Immigration and Naturalization Service under President George W. Bush, suggested that U.S. politics will evolve to meet the challenge. “I think 25 years from now illegal entry will be much less of a concern because Congress would have passed measures to allow legal work visas for lower-skilled jobs in the U.S. and economic and demographic changes south of the border will likely mean less interest in coming to the United States to work,” he wrote via email. “It then will be easier for technology and border personnel to monitor the border once natural economic forces are directed into legal channels, as opposed to today, when workers from the south often enter the black market in labor and utilize human smuggling cartels because legal avenues are not considered a viable option.”

In other words, improved economies south of the border, and more rational migrant labor policies north of it, will lead the way to more legal border crossings and fewer illegal ones. Simon Rosenberg, a pro-immigration advocate, points out that even with all the border’s troubles, that future is already unfolding: Trade is increasing as illegal immigration declines. “It’s been a policy success,” he said by email.

Of course, it’s possible that these people don’t get out much, that they live in ivory towers or gated communities or homes for the deluded and blinkered. Or it’s possible that they’re a little more honest about the realities of the U.S. border than the sleazy politicians trying to scare the rest of us.

Photo: Fronteras Desk via Flickr

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Republicans Pave The Way To All-White Future

Republicans Pave The Way To All-White Future

Oct. 16 (Bloomberg View) — Even Senator John McCain has surrendered. A steadfast supporter of immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship, McCain essentially acknowledged yesterday in Georgia that his party’s anti-immigration forces have demolished any hope of soon legalizing the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

McCain’s assessment is as unimpeachable as it is irrational. In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he said, “I understand now, especially in my home state of Arizona, that these children coming, and now with the threat of ISIS … that we have to have a secure border.”

Follow that? Immigration reform, including the legalization of millions of immigrants already living in the U.S., is on hold because tens of thousands of Central American children have surrendered to border authorities. Also, because a sadistic army is killing people in Syria and Iraq. McCain, often a summer soldier when the forces of demagogy call, was perhaps too embarrassed to link Ebola to the new orthodoxy; of course, others already have.

It’s hard to see how Republicans walk this back before 2017 — at the earliest. What began with the national party calling for immigration reform as a predicate to future Republican relevancy has ended with complete capitulation to the party’s anti-immigration base. Conservatives are busy running ads and shopping soundbites depicting immigrants as vectors of disease, criminality and terrorism, a 30-second star turn that Hispanic and Asian voters, in particular, may not entirely relish.

“The day after the 2014 election,” emailed immigration advocate Frank Sharry, Republicans will “face a future defined by an anti-Latino and anti-immigrant brand and the rapid and relentless growth of Latino, Asian-American and immigrant voters.”

Sharry is bitter about the Republican rejection of comprehensive immigration reform. And public opinion has turned against immigration in the wake of the border influx of Central Americans earlier this year. But is Sharry’s analysis skewed? There has never been a convincing “day after tomorrow” plan for Republicans if they abandon reform and embrace their most anti-immigrant wing.

Yet it looks as if Republicans have done just that. “Secure the border” is an empty slogan and practical nightmare. But if you’re a conservative politician desperate to assuage (or exploit) what writer Steve Chapman calls the “deep anxieties” stirred by “brown migrants sneaking over from Mexico,” it’s an empty slogan with legs. It will be vastly easier for Republicans running in 2016 to shout “secure the border!” than to defy the always anxious, politically empowered Republican base. Perhaps Republicans in Congress will muster some form of Dream Act for immigrant youth or a visa sop to the tech industry, but they seem incapable of more.

In that case, the path of least resistance — and it has been many years since national Republicans have taken a different route — will be to continue reassuring the base while alienating brown voters. (After six years in which Republicans’ highest priority has been destruction of the nation’s first black president, it’s doubtful black voters will be persuadable anytime soon.) The party’s whole diversity gambit goes out the window. The White Album plays in perpetuity on Republican turntables.

That would be a significant problem if it resulted only in the marginalization and regionalization of the nation’s conservative party. But a racial hunkering down in an increasingly multi-racial nation will not be a passive or benign act. Pressed to the demographic wall, Republicans will be fighting to win every white vote, not always in the most high-minded manner. Democrats, likewise, will have a powerful incentive to question the motives and consequences of their opponents’ racial solidarity.

Immigration has always been about more than race. November’s election will go a long way toward making it about nothing else.

Photo: Jim Greenhill via Flickr

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Southern Republicans Bring More Polarization

Southern Republicans Bring More Polarization

Sept. 19 (Bloomberg View) — If Democratic incumbent senators in Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina lose their races this November (and my non-data-geek guess is that they will), and Democratic challengers in Georgia and Kentucky fall short (ditto), every Senate seat in the South outside Florida will be in Republican hands.

The South’s hold on the Republican Party, already powerful, will intensify. It’s hard to see how that could be a good outcome.

As Nate Cohn wrote in the New York Times, “The Republican Party’s increasingly Southern character makes broadening its appeal more challenging. A record 41 percent of Republican voters in the 2012 election hailed from the South. Those voters elected more than half of all House Republicans in 2012 — the first time that Southerners have represented a majority of the House Republican Caucus.” Describing the new House majority whip, Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, former Representative Bob Livingston told the Washington Post, “He’s a fighter and a Southerner,” and thus “represents the biggest constituency in the caucus.”

State legislatures in the South have been aggressively segmenting along racial lines. While Republicans nationally have an enormous incentive to diversify as the nation’s demography changes, Southern Republicans have been using their majority redistricting powers to heighten racial distinctions between the parties. They have made survival difficult for white Democratic candidates by placing them in districts with large black majorities. Increasingly, the Democratic Party in those states is black and the Republican Party is white. As NBC News reported, in every state of the former Confederacy for which exit polls were available, President Barack Obama’s share of the white vote in 2012 was lower than his national average.

If history is any guide — and Southwise, when is it not? — this will probably have toxic consequences both for Republicans and for U.S. politics.

The loss of three moderate Democrats in the Senate this year would also mean the loss of three moderate Southerners. In other words, Southern representation in the Senate would become even less moderate than it is already — and it’s pretty immoderate. More white Southern conservatives in the ranks is precisely what the Republican Party doesn’t need as it stumbles into the 21st century in a panic over changing demography. The party is already perilously white and socially conservative in a nation that is increasingly multiracial and socially tolerant. (The religion gap in U.S. politics — with the heavily evangelical South occupying one of the far ends — makes the gender gap look like a hairline fracture.) Many of the Republican Party’s most radical impulses, and some of its most embarrassing members, are based in the South.

All of this seems likely to produce a Senate even more polarized than it is today, with a more solidly liberal Democratic caucus and a Republican caucus even more dependent on conservative Southern whites. So two of the scourges of contemporary U.S. politics — intense partisan polarization and the slide of the Republican Party into reaction — may both get a modest boost. Oh joy.

Photo: Andrew Aliferis via Flickr

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Where Do American Unions Go From Chattanooga?

Where Do American Unions Go From Chattanooga?

Feb. 21 (Bloomberg) — I asked Rich Yeselson, a former union strategist and author of this excellent article on the United Automobile Workers’ failed effort to unionize a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to answer a few questions, via email, about the meaning of the Chattanooga vote and the future of unionism in the U.S. Here is a lightly edited transcript.

Question: Who lost in Chattanooga last week? The UAW? Volkswagen? The plant workers?

Answer: The UAW was clearly the big loser. Its long-term project to break through at a foreign automaker’s Southern plant failed again — this time with a carefully wrought strategy and the company, effectively, on its side. Victories in social struggle signify competence and power; failure their opposite. So this makes every other organizing campaign that much tougher. The Chattanooga plant is an anomaly for VW, but it will be fine. As for the workers, a union (and the works council that would have come with it) would have given them a collective voice in the workplace on every major issue. But the majority voted no– we’ll see if they later regret that vote.

Q: Did workers at the plant conclude that the union is so weak in this economy that joining it can’t provide real benefits? If so, is that perception correct?

A: We don’t know that for certain yet, but some anecdotal post-vote evidence seems to indicate that a lot of the “no” voters didn’t think the UAW had much juice anyway, so why join them? The workers saw the two-tier wage structure — with starting wages in Detroit now similar to non-union starting wages in the South — that the UAW accepted at the Big Three auto companies after the recession. They saw the UAW’s obvious eagerness to project a tone of cooperation with VW, rather than hint at any productive antagonism.

Capital mobility obviously weakens labor’s economic leverage in the manufacturing sector, where facilities can be moved to lower-wage countries. (That’s why the German and Japanese companies moved to the low-wage South in the first place.) The paradox, however, is that if workers reject the UAW because of its perceived weakness, then the UAW might disappear altogether. If it does, the transplant companies in the South will feel no obligation to sustain wages and benefits, which are comparable to the union rate precisely in order to keep unions out. So the vulnerability of the union could become the vulnerability of the workers who disdain the union, too.

Q: Is it right to view this as another landmark on a long, hard road to irrelevance? Or do you see anything positive for the UAW or unions in general to extract from this?

A: It’s trite to say, but history really is unknowable — we can declare something a defeat, but we can’t yet know if it’s a landmark. In the early 1930s, John L. Lewis was beset by enemies within the mineworkers union, and was being booed and insulted by his own membership when he tried to speak. By 1937, he was on the cover of Time magazine, the leader of a massive and growing labor movement and the second most powerful person in the country.

The UAW and labor, broadly, can relearn one important lesson from this defeat: Working people, through the institutions of unions, can potentially still throw a lot of economic, political and cultural weight around. And that worries economic and political elites. The almost hysterical conservative leadership of Tennessee, including U.S. Senator Bob Corker, fears the power of unions. If unions were truly “irrelevant” there wouldn’t have been so much anxiety coursing through the low-wage South that the UAW might win, and that a win might lead to other wins. But the workers have to want to unionize, even if they are being intimidated. Otherwise Corker will rest easy.

Q: We have a chronically slack labor market, stagnant and declining wages for workers who aren’t at the top of the income scale and the continuing effects of technology and a global labor market keeping those wages down. Do you see a path out of this to better days and better wages? How?

A: There are public policies we could implement if we didn’t have such a dysfunctional system of government, and if one of our major parties wasn’t the most radical political formation since the Southern Democrats before the Civil War.

We’ve over-corrected for inflation. Former president Ronald Reagan and Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker were cheered for “slaying” high inflation by getting it down to 4 percent. Now we’ve cut that in half, which crimps investment that can lead to more jobs. Europe has shown the folly of imagining growth happens via austerity and inflation fetishism.

A tighter labor market equals higher wages. Obviously we could increase workers’ bargaining power via support for unionization, too. And we could lift the wage floor with a combination of wage subsidies and a higher minimum wage, which would have a ripple effect upward on higher wage scales, too. These are technical fixes that policy wonks understand. We can also generate a lot more economic expansion and lower housing costs in our great cities — where most of our growth takes place — by loosening zoning restrictions. Lane Kenworthy has a lot of great ideas in his new book, Social Democratic America. But they won’t happen until the structure of our political system changes, or there is a decisive transformation of the Republican Party.

Q: One last (admittedly impossible) question: In 15 years, will the number of private-sector union members be smaller or larger than now? Why?

A: You’re right — it’s an impossible question! I don’t know the answer. Nobody remotely could have imagined the union growth in the 15 years from 1927 to 1942, when the percentage of unionized workers in the U.S. more than tripled. Incremental growth in union membership pretty much never happens. In the U.S. and other western nations. Union membership tends to stagnate and decline for decades; then, occasionally, it experiences enormous growth spurts. So the historical and economic logic suggests that workers, en masse, have to become sufficiently angry at their situation to demand massive change, via increased unionization. If workers don’t do that, then further decline is likely.

(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter. Rich Yeselson, a writer in Washington, D.C., worked for 23 years as a union strategic campaigner with the AFL-CIO, SEIU, UNITE-HERE and Change to Win. Follow him on Twitter.)

Photo: David Shankbone via Flickr

Legislatures Consider Changes In Liquor, Beer, Wine Laws

Legislatures Consider Changes In Liquor, Beer, Wine Laws

By Elaine S. Povich, Stateline.org

WASHINGTON — In Shrewsbury, Pennsylvania, near the Maryland state line, a square cinderblock building sports huge painted images of beer and soda bottles painted on the side. The sign on the private business reads, “Beer and Soda.” Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett and some state legislators would like to add “Liquor” to that.

As it stands now, liquor is sold only in the approximately 600 stores run by the state.

The latest push to privatize liquor stores in Pennsylvania is among several proposals in state legislatures this year dealing with the sale of liquor, wine and beer. A similar attempt in Pennsylvania failed last year, as it has before, amid legislative squabbling. This time around, Corbett, a Republican, took a more subtle tack by only mentioning the issue in his State of the State speech, but declining to offer legislation and leaving it to lawmakers to put forth any bills.

Among the other liquor law changes being considered in states legislatures for 2014 are: eliminating the mandatory “Sunday closing” law in Minnesota — twelve states currently prohibit Sunday sales; a move to put grocery store sales of some liquor on the Oregon ballot in November; allowing wine to be sold in grocery stores in Tennessee — thirty-three states and Washington, D.C. now allow food stores to sell wine; various proposals in Utah to expand or privatize liquor sales, which are among the most restrictive in the country; and a proposal to eliminate excise taxes on beer, wine and liquor in Connecticut. Neighboring Rhode Island cut the tax on wine and spirits last year and advocates say Connecticut is losing business across the border.

Most of the direct taxes on beer, wine and liquor are likely to remain untouched by legislatures in 2014, because of a general reluctance to raise taxes as the economy improves and as states consider tax cuts or spending increases. A formidable liquor lobby also resists such taxes.

Tax Policy Center figures show states and localities took in a total of $6.2 billion from alcohol taxes in 2011, compared with $17.6 billion from tobacco.

But these other moves to tinker with liquor laws may well increase state tax revenues. For example, Washington state, which privatized liquor sales in June 2012, saw its alcohol tax revenues increase 9.7 percent as a result.

Alcohol tax collections for July 2011 to July 2012 were $242 million and increased to $265 million for July 2012 to July 2013, according to Kim Schmanke of the Washington State Department of Revenue. She attributed the rise to making it more convenient for consumers to buy liquor and the resulting increased sales.

“Our tax structure didn’t change. Our taxes are exactly the same (as before privatization),” she said. “Private market forces influenced the pricing and that influenced consumer behavior.”

But while private store sales may lure more consumers, new state fees and distribution charges in Washington have pushed taxes and fees that consumers pay on spirits to $35.22 a gallon in 2013, from $26.70 a gallon in 2012, according to the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan, anti-tax group. The foundation noted that in general, however, the average tax on a gallon of spirits in “control states” is $11.12, and in privatized states, $5.51 a gallon.

Washington state’s sales tax on spirits is 20.5 percent of the selling price and $3.77 per liter.

In Pennsylvania, Wendell Young, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, which opposes privatization, said the state shouldn’t expect a windfall in tax revenue if it turns over liquor sales to private businesses.

He said studies have shown it will take $1.4 billion to “unwind” the current state stores system and that the “best-case scenario” would be that the state would pick up $800 million in new licensing and operation fees for the private stores. Young said the union estimates 3,500 jobs would be lost if the state liquor stores close, and the existing private businesses that would take over sales won’t replace that many jobs.

“They will re-allocate their current space and re-allocate the current workforce,” he said. “Our folks are going to be put out of work and very few of them will get hired in the retail stores.”

He argued that the current state store system is working well. “This benefits taxpayers whether they drink or not,” he said. “It’s a solution in search of a problem. There is no problem.”

Charles Zogby, Pennsylvania’s state budget secretary, said the state might get more revenue from private sales, but, unlike many states, Pennsylvania does not have a budget surplus this year, so the legislature might hesitate to move forward without a better guarantee that privatization would garner at least the same amount of funds.

The governor estimated the state loses $80 million a year to neighboring states, such as New Jersey, Delaware or Maryland, because of the inconvenience of buying at state stores in Pennsylvania, which forces consumers to go to more than one store to pick up beer, wine or hard liquor.

“We have to reform our antiquated system of state-owned liquor stores. Visitors often wonder about it _ unless they’re from Utah,” Corbett said in his State of the State speech, mentioning the only other state that has completely state-controlled alcohol purchases.

Utah has some of the most restrictive alcohol laws in the nation. The Mormon Church, whose members eschew alcohol, tobacco and caffeine, said recently it is opposed to making liquor more accessible because of what it sees as an invitation to more alcohol-related problems.

The church opposed proposals that would “weaken Utah’s alcohol laws and regulations” including privatization of sales, increases in alcohol license quotas, sales of “heavy beer,” (over 3.2 percent alcohol) outside the state-controlled system and eliminating the requirement that restaurants do 70 percent of their business in food and 30 percent in alcohol.

Tennessee lawmakers recently took one step toward convenience, at least according to a Vanderbilt University poll that showed 66 percent of those surveyed favored allowing sales of wine in grocery stores. It is sold in private liquor stores now, along with spirits. The state Senate last month approved giving voters a chance to decide the issue in a referendum this fall.

The House approved similar legislation, but the two versions must be reconciled before the bill can go to Republican Governor Bill Haslam, who said he would sign it. The new law would take effect in 2016, to give liquor stores and grocery stores time to adjust.

Tennessee Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, a Republican, called the approval “a great step forward” in expanding consumer choice and spurring economic growth “with this common-sense, pro-market measure.”

In Minnesota, a Republican state lawmaker is pushing to allow all liquor sales on Sunday. State Representative Jenifer Loon said the prohibition against Sunday sales is just that — a leftover from the Prohibition era that needs to be scrapped. Her bill would give localities the option of permitting Sunday sales or not.

“The law against Sunday sales has been in place since Prohibition ended,” Loon told Stateline. “It just doesn’t reflect how people do their shopping. Sunday is a very busy day in the retail world for every product except liquor.” Currently, only low-alcohol beer can be sold in Minnesota grocery stores on Sunday.

Some smaller stores have opposed the change, saying it would be difficult for them to open another day each week.

“Some say ‘I don’t want to be open on Sunday.’ I say, ‘You don’t have to,’ ” Loon said. “I don’t think it’s the state’s role to determine that a particular type of store can’t be open on Sunday.”

Democratic Governor Mark Dayton said he would sign the bill.

Photo: Jeff_Golden via Flickr

Can Republicans Govern If They Win in 2014?

Can Republicans Govern If They Win in 2014?

What’s the worst-case scenario for Republicans in November? Maybe victory.

A Republican takeover of the Senate is somewhere between plausible and very likely. (If you want more exact predictions, you have to provide a less volatile political climate.) So for argument’s sake, let’s assume Republican candidates roll to victory from Alaska to North Carolina. The Democrats’ 54-46 Senate majority is supplanted by a narrower Republican majority, with Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell or someone of nearly equal skill installed as majority leader.

The Republicans would then control both the House and the Senate. In the Senate, the most enthusiastic partisans in the new majority would be eager to dispense with the filibuster on legislation, allowing bills to pass on party-line Republican votes. Let’s assume that happens, too.

What exactly would they do with these newfound powers?

They wouldn’t pass a jobs bill because they don’t want President Barack Obama to gain credit for an improving economy. Besides, they’ve convinced themselves that jobs bills don’t work — at least until a Republican occupies the White House.

What about health care legislation? Jonathan Bernstein parses the prospects on his blog. According to a CBS News poll in January, only 34 percent of Americans support repealing Obamacare; it would be a nonstarter even if the health care and insurance industries weren’t already too far down the Obamacare road. If Republicans took the plunge to create legislation, the real-world impacts of their proposals would be scored by the Congressional Budget Office and outside policy groups. It’s hard to imagine what Republicans could devise that would satisfy their ideological needs without undermining health security for millions while increasing the deficit. There’s a reason they keep talking about health care but never get around to doing anything.

How about immigration? Senate legislation drafted by Republicans would look nothing like the bipartisan immigration bill passed by the Senate last June. Senate Democrats would have little incentive to support a vastly more conservative bill, which would rely even more on employment enforcement and militarization of the border while offering far-less-generous terms to undocumented immigrants. Under such circumstances, House Democrats would surely abandon House Republicans to their own devices, as well.

Without Democratic votes, the House cannot pass anything more comprehensive than an immigration crackdown. The fate of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. would be unresolved at best. The political failure would be a fiasco, further undermining Republicans among Hispanic and Asian voters while simultaneously opening the door to another round of nativist big-talk among Republican presidential hopefuls. (The U.S. Chamber of Commerce would express its heartfelt disappointment, then funnel millions of dollars to Republican incumbents.)

The party’s internal conflicts would all be exacerbated by a Senate takeover. Imagine, for example, how much leverage a narrow Republican majority would grant to Senator Ted Cruz — and the chaos that could ensue.

In its current incarnation, the party is more or less an anti-tax lobby grafted to a Sons of the Confederacy chapter. Genuine areas of policy consensus among Republicans are few — spending cuts for the poor, tax cuts for the rich and promotion of incumbent dirty energy industries at the expense of Obama’s green agenda. None of these is popular. (Although in coal and oil states the energy reversal would be welcome. Keystone, too, if its construction is not already underway in 2015.) All would face probable Obama vetoes.

What’s left? Entitlement reform? The Republicans’ elderly base is not eager for changes in Medicare or Social Security. That leaves culture warrior stuff, mostly. New abortion restrictions, perhaps? One last lunge against gay rights? Not much electoral magic there.

The party’s capacity to please its right-wing cultural base, its anti-tax, anti-regulatory donor base and a slim majority of American voters is almost nonexistent. Democratic control of the Senate has shielded Republicans both from their own divisions and from the unpopularity of their causes.

Indeed, it’s possible that the Boschian hellscape over which John Boehner presides in the 113th Congress could actually get uglier and more bizarre if Republicans win the Senate in the 114th. I’m not sure even these Republicans deserve that.

(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

Photo: Republican Conference via Flickr