Jonathan Chait argues that with liberals who want President Obama "to make a straightforward defense of government" and conservatives who "want him to create a Clintonian, Third Way rubric," Democrats have nothing which can "work as a bumper sticker solution. He concludes "ultimately, I think 'we're for what works" is probably as good an answer as you can find, though it is unsatisfying strategically.
Democrats- at least those not completely beholden to corporate interests- have a more positive message than merely "defending government," though if there is any motivating factor to the Obama presidency, it has been to do "what works," nothwithstanding any ideological or political implications.
But Chait has a stronger case when he notes
One of the old but vital aphorisms of American politics is that Americans are ideological conservatives but operational liberals. They oppose government in the abstract, but favor it in most of the particulars. (The primary exceptions being programs seen as benefitting only the poor, only the rich, or only foreigners.)
If only Chait realized just how strong his position is. The exceptions to it, he acknowledges, are "programs seen as benefitting only the poor, only the rich, or only foreigners."
Make that "programs seen as benefitting only the poor or the rich." The liberal/progressive response to illegal immigration is: 1) discourage employers from hiring illegal immigrants; 2) give those who already are here a chance at the American dream by bringing them out of the shadows and a path to citizenship.
Conservatives never argue that employers should have a free hand at hiring individuals in the country illegally (though, arguably, some believe they should). A path to citizenship, the core of the (never passed) McCain-Kennedy bill and the Schumer-Graham framework, clearly is an effort to "benefit foreigners," as Chait would put it.
A New York Times/CBS News poll taken 4/28-5/2/2010 asked a battery of questions about immigration, including (#65) "which comes closes to your view about illegal immigrants who are currently working in the U.S.? 1) They should be allowed to stay in their jobs and to eventually apply for U.S. citizenship; or 2) They should be allowed to stay int heir jobs as temporary guest workers, but not apply for U.S. citizenship; or 3) They should be required to leave their jobs and leave the U.S." A clear plurality- 43%- opted for the first choice (4% as DK/NA).
More recently, a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics survey taken July 27 and 28 asked "If it were possible to locate most illegal immigrants currently in the United States, would you favor deporting as many as possible or would you favor setting up a system for them to become legal residents?" A plurality, 49%, opted for "setting up a system for them to become legal residents" while 45% opted for the deportation option (7% undecided).
While it is true that both surveys found strong support for the Arizona immigration/illegal immigration law, that merely bolsters the thesis, cited by Chait, that "Americans are ideological conservatives." Their emotions and instincts are usually conservative but they usually (with a lot of exceptions) back liberal policies. Support for the Arizona law would not make respondents "operational conservatives. The law is poorly understood, interpreted in various ways, and has resulted in emotional, almost instinctive reaction by both the left and right. And clearly much of its support has been prompted by great frustration at inaction by the federal government- and an inability or unwillingness to deal with the problem in any effective manner.
That may account for one of the major traits of modern American politics: while liberals often avoid specifics, conservatives do so routinely.
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