Hillary Clinton may believe that the horrific terrorism unleashed in Paris should not be used “to be scoring political points,” but House Republicans evidently view the tragedy, and its resulting anguish and fear, as one of those crises to be exploited. The drama that surrounded the House’s hurried passage of the “SAFE Act,” effectively barring refugees from countries where terrorists control major amounts of territory, says a lot about the new Speaker, Paul Ryan, the positioning of Democrats, the awkward posture of the Obama Administration, and the impact on 2016 politics.
Ryan actually rejected more extreme legislative proposals from conservatives in his Conference and instead putting the SAFE Act on the floor on Thursday. In doing so, he violated not only his pledge for “regular order” – to allow committees rather than the leadership to produce legislation – but also the longstanding (and oft-neglected) Republican promise to allow 72 hours for review before bringing legislation to the floor. In addition, Ryan refused to allow Democrats to offer any amendments to the freshly drafted bill. So much for Mr. Ryan’s pledge to run the House in a more open, fair, and “regular” (let alone thoughtful) manner.
Ryan had to face down the hardliners in the Republican Conference who intimidated and ultimately ousted John Boehner from the speakership. Evidently, Ryan offered them no concessions, and the Freedom Caucus folded like a cheap suitcase. Efforts by Administration spokespeople to persuade Democrats to follow their leadership and oppose the bill were ineffective, according to sources inside the Caucus briefing, because the Obama emissaries could not provide clear answers to Member inquiries. As a result, 47 Democrats voted for the bill, including a good number of liberals from relatively safe seats.
The far Right has not given up on the legislation, however, with longtime activist Richard Viguerie declaring that “Paul Ryan’s SAFE Act of 2015 will not stop one jihadi posing as a Syrian ‘refugee’ from entering the United States.” Viguerie condemned reliable House conservatives for being “complicit in Obama’s dangerous [immigration] plans because they keep funding them.” The willingness of extreme conservatives to challenge any Republican they view as aiding Obama, even if that means voting for appropriations and budget bills favored by the GOP leadership, is illustrated by challenger Becky Gerritson’s condemnation of Rep. Martha Roby (the Benghazi committee member who quizzed Clinton on whether she was alone the night of the attack) for “supporting Obama’s Islamic Importation Plan.” And Roby voted for the SAFE Act!
It may be a bit more difficult than Harry Reid pledged to keep the Senate from considering the House legislation, which passed with more than enough votes to override an Obama veto. “Don’t worry, it won’t get passed,” he declared this week. Maybe, but it is likely many of the Democrats up for re-election in the Senate, not to mention those running against incumbent Republicans and crucial to a Democratic majority in 2017, do not want to be accused of preventing a vote on a bill to safeguard Americans from so-called terrorist immigrants; indeed, New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, who is opposing Sen. Kelly Ayotte, has joined Republican governors is opposing admission of Syrian refugees to her state. The veto threat by the White House may have been premature, as there are already some signs of a willingness to negotiate on the House-passed bill to avoid putting Democrats into that box, a reversal that would no doubt drive many House Democrats who opposed the Ryan bill into a fury.
The emergence of the refugee issue is a dangerous one for congressional Democrats and presidential candidates alike. Most grievously, the issue appears to legitimize Donald Trump’s offensive accusations about those who enter the country by expedited or illegal means. There is little reason to believe, with Paris as a backdrop, that Trump will tone down his xenophobic warnings or that his statements will repel the sizable portion of the Republican electorate that supports him. If anything, Paris has allowed Trump to become even more incendiary, warning that “We’re going to have to … certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.” Among his ideas about actions “that we never did before” are potentially closing mosques and requiring Muslims to carry a form of special identification. Perhaps he will suggest having them sew yellow crescents to their shirts; there’s an idea that’s been done before.
For Democrats, and especially Clinton, the elevation of national security is never a beneficial development in a national campaign, which is of course why Ryan, Cruz and others have offered legislative proposals so quickly. Clinton’s speech to the Council on Foreign Relations contained a reasonable mix of restraint (limited U.S. boots on the ground) and big stick shaking (a Syrian no fly zone, demanding that Iraq arm the Kurdish fighter against ISIS “or we will”), but her campaign will not benefit from the endless questions about her tenure at State that will dominate upcoming debates and press conferences. She will also need to be careful not to adopt so hawkish a stance in response to bombings in Paris, Beiruit, Bamako or elsewhere that the anti-military contingent of Democrats begins to drift more significantly towards Sanders, resulting in early primary and caucus losses or underperformance.
It is a mistake to underestimate the potency of this issue. For all the tributes to the Statue of Liberty, our immigrant heritage, and our legacy of welcoming refugees, the history of the United States has a dark side on the question of immigration policy as well. From the times of the anti-Irish Know-Nothings during the antebellum period, through the Asian exclusion laws of the late-nineteenth century, to the hostility to immigrants from southern Europe at the turn of the 20th century, the rejection of Jewish refugees before World War II and opposition to Vietnamese and Cambodians in the 1970s, the U.S. has not always thrown out the welcome mat, even to refugees. The Populist movement of the 1890s had a distinct nativist tone. Moreover, the association with many of these earlier immigrant populations with violence – whether Irish gangs, Chinese tongs, German anarchists, Italian Mafioso or Cambodian warlords – has helped shape stereotypes that feed deep-seated suspicions about some of those seeking refuge on our shores.
Administration officials seek to assuage concerns by noting our rigorous admission reviews for Syrian refugees, but since no plan is perfect, the argument can sound less than convincing. Assistant Secretary of State Anne C. Richard, who has responsibility for refugees and migration, recently acknowledged, “I am very worried about terrorists,” and added, “I think the odds of a refugee becoming a terrorist are very, very small.” Therein lies the dilemma: “very, very small” could well mean a handful of well-disguised jihadists who carry out an unspeakable act of terror. For many voters and for politicians, who know they will be held accountable for every statement and vote on the issue, an absolute ban sounds like a safer bet than “very, very small.” As political psychologist Drew Westin has noted, “In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins.” That is why this issue may well have transformed the debate, the campaign, and maybe even the outcome of the 2016 election.