Plenty of Republicans believe most Hispanics who vote on the issue are lost to them no matter what. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Plenty of Republicans believe most Hispanics who vote on the issue are lost to them no matter what. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The congressional version of immigration reform is finally completely dead for this Congress. And, as expected, President Barack Obama announced yesterday that he’ll do what he can within current law. Jonathan Chait has an interesting post about some of the reasons and the consequences, but I want to focus on the idea that this helps Democrats in the 2016 presidential race.

First, this is the conventional wisdom among Democrats and some Republicans (it was a notable finding of the party's official 2012 post-mortem). Yet plenty of Republicans believe instead that most Hispanics who vote on the issue are lost to them regardless of what happens, and endorsing comprehensive reform would risk alienating some otherwise-loyal Anglo voters. So even for the presidential election, it's not entirely clear that Republicans aren't acting based on (general) election incentives when it comes to immigration reform.

Second, in the short run, it’s not an implausible argument. A bill signed by Obama that Hispanic voters like could help Democrats with those voters, even if Republicans supported it. I should clarify: this isn't the same as the familiar but implausible argument that there are more votes to be had for Republicans by a closer embrace of ideological extremists. (That's implausible because there are far more voters in the middle than at the extremes, and those at the extreme will still find Republicans the best choice).

In the long run, the electoral danger of keeping immigration reform high on the agenda is that it could keep Hispanics in the Democratic camp for generations, in part by encouraging them to use ethnicity as their primary political identification. And if that happens, Republicans will risk turning into a long-term minority party. But the electoral effects are much murkier in 2016. That makes it even more difficult for pro-reform Republicans to make the case, particularly as politicians generally aren't known for their long-term electoral thinking.

Now, on the policy merits, Chait (and Obama) have it right: the possibility of White House action has always made a compromise the best choice for Republicans if what they care about is policy substance. But this set of House Republicans, and the party they represent, isn’t known for putting policy substance over symbolism. And so they chose inaction, safe in the knowledge that anti-reform zealots won't blame House Republicans for inaction, even when it is followed by a policy result that delivers less for them than compromise would have.

Electoral effects? Odds are that many Republicans were acting on what they thought would help them even in 2016 and that argument isn’t clearly wrong.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.