Zero Means Zero!

Mickey Kaus Columnist
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A word about immigration and zero-sumness: A recent paragraph in National Journal from Jill Lawrence:

Let’s stipulate that there’s deep mistrust and an even deeper ideological chasm between Republicans and Democrats, and neither will be fixed with bowling parties. That doesn’t mean we are doomed to paralysis. In today’s Washington, the path to progress is cold politics: locating the intersection of self-interest for both parties. Immigration reform, which Republicans need badly, is one of those intersections. Gun research and background checks may be another. Taxes and spending are the stickiest issues, especially with this week’s GDP news foreshadowing an economic slowdown if the federal government makes sharp spending cutbacks. But there is room for compromise if both sides are convinced it’s in their interest. [E.A.]

This seems confused. The race to control the Presidency is a zero-sum contest, like a football game. One party wins, and one loses. Both can’t win. Immigration amnesty (or gun control, or spending cuts) might help Democrats dominate national politics and lock up the presidency for generations to come (as some believe) or it might help Republicans by allowing them to increase their dismal share of the growing Latino vote. But both sides can’t be right.  Even if they both think immigration amnesty will help them, one of them is wrong.  No event can’t help “both” parties win the White House, or attain national dominance. That’s true even if amnesty is merely a “gateway policy” allowing Republicans to win Latinos only over the long term (because “it would remove an impediment to reconciliation”) or if it’s necessary to help Republicans appeal to non-Latinos who fret about intolerance–if those things are true, amnesty isn’t in Dem’s interest over that same long term, and Dems (under Lawrence’s theory) should not give it to Republicans.

Likewise, if it is in the self-interest of Dems to pass amnesty, then Republicans don’t “badly” need it. They’d be better off without it. Dems win, they lose.

If  political battles are zero sum, why does legislation ever pass in a divided country? In part because control of the White House is different from control of Congress or control of states or control of any individual legislative seat.  What helps a party in the zero-sum race for the Presidency might also help incumbents of the opposing party in their zero-sum races to hold on to their seats. That’s what happened with welfare reform in ’96. The legislation was popular. Passing it would help Bill Clinton, but it would also help Newt Gingrich’s incumbents in Congress. At some point–as November, 1996 approached–Gingrich’s caucus decided to save their own skins even though it clearly meant hurting their party’s presidential candidate, Bob Dole.

In this sort of multi-level calculus, Democrats who want the House to pass a Senate-backed amnesty bill seem to have two choices: a) they can convince House Republican incumbents that they’ll be more likely to be reelected if amnesty passes (good luck with that)–or b) they can convince Speaker Boehner to uphold what many GOP strategists perceive as the party’s presidential interest even if it means cramming a bill down the throats of Boehner’s own caucus against their individual interests in reelection. Not as easy as Lawrence suggests.

None of this means Democrats or Republicans can’t pass bills out of idealism even if that’s not in their long run self-interest–i.e., even if it dooms them. (That’s what LBj thought Dems did when they passed civil rights laws in the 1960s** and what Gingrich did when he acceded to a welfare reform that, over time, deprived GOPs of their best anti-liberal talking point.) But Lawrence is lecturing us on “self-interest,” not idealism.


**–Update: In her recent book Mugged, Ann Coulter says the story of LBJ’s heroic civil rights fatalism is a canard. Even if that’s the case, it could happen. …

Mickey Kaus