The latest opinion polls show that the GOP has suffered a huge drop in its approval ratings, even among self-identified Republicans. In the wake of the government shutdown, only 28 percent of Americans hold a favorable view of the party, and Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats to view their own party negatively, according to a recent Gallup poll.
Given these dire numbers, you'd think the Republican leadership would jump at the chance to help repair the damage. But is there anything Republicans can do?
For starters, they could pass an immigration bill, which would demonstrate that Republicans are willing to help govern and not just obstruct.
The Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill in June, with some (though not nearly enough) Republican support. But the House has dragged its feet -- and Speaker John Boehner has been unwilling to exercise leadership by pushing his caucus to act. If a bill doesn't make it this year, its chances will be even worse during the 2014 election season, which is exactly what anti-immigration forces are counting on.
It's no accident that many of those who led the GOP astray during the shutdown are the same people most opposed to immigration reform. The overwhelming majority of Americans, including a majority of Republicans and conservatives, favor immigration reform that grants legal status and a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants here now.
But a new poll by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that a majority of tea party activists oppose such changes. And one of the leading groups, the Tea Party Patriots, has threatened primary challenges to any Republican who votes for comprehensive reform.
It's not clear why immigration is such a hot button for the tea party. These loose-knit groups came together after President Obama was elected largely to stem the growth of government. But if anything, immigration restrictionists are the personification of big government, favoring huge expenditures of money and resources on immigration enforcement, opposing the right of employers to hire whom they want, and letting Washington bureaucrats determine our future need for labor.
But with or without legislation, the immigration issue itself won't go away. Some 11 million undocumented people will continue to live inside of our borders but outside of our laws. While most of the adults in this group work, they do so illegally, and though most pay taxes, not all of them do. If immigration reform passed, all would pay taxes, thus lightening the load for the rest of us. You would think the tea party would approve. Do any of us benefit from depriving able-bodied individuals from earning their own living, taking care of their families and paying their fair share of taxes?
Boehner hurt his party (and the country) by abdicating to a minority within it during the shutdown. He allowed a vocal few to outshout the interests of the American people. Time will tell whether the damage done to the GOP is irreparable. But it is bound to be harder to fix the longer party leaders wait to do something.
There is no principled reason why Republicans should be against reforming our broken immigration system. And simply throwing more money at enforcement, which has been the Republican stance for the past decade, hasn't worked.
The Senate bill is far from perfect, but the Republican-controlled House has yet to produce anything better. At a minimum, Boehner should be leading his members to pass a bill that includes more visas to deal with labor shortages at both the high- and low-skilled ends of the spectrum; immediate legal status for illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children; and a path to legalization and citizenship for illegal immigrants who've worked hard, paid taxes and stayed out of trouble.
The GOP would be doing itself a favor by embracing legislation that nearly everyone wants and that the economy desperately needs. But first, Republican leaders must resist the siren call of those who have already done it so much damage.