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June 14, 2013 12:32 PM Wheeler Dealers

By Ed Kilgore

Notice anything odd about this lede from Alex Altman’s glowing profile of Sen. Chuck Schumer at TIME?

Chuck Schumer has a unified theory about how to do a big deal in a divided capital. “You have to walk in the other guy’s moccasins,” he says. “You have to think what they think. If you want to bring somebody onto your side, you have to figure out what motivates them. What do they need?”
The strategy is working. Once respected, reviled and feared all at once for his sharp-elbowed style, Schumer is emerging as one of Washington’s top dealmakers. As I write in the new issue of TIME, he was a key player in both the background-check deal that sputtered in the Senate last spring and, more significantly, the lead Democratic negotiator in the immigration reform bill that has a good shot of passing the Senate this summer.
“There are too many who say, here’s compromise: here’s what I want, and I’ll only take three-quarters of it,” Schumer explained in an interview in his Senate office last week. The secret to the early success of the immigration bill, which was formally taken up in an overwhelming vote by the Senate on Tuesday, has been simple: “respect for [all] points of view.”

Yes, the failed Manchin-Toomey gun compromise is being touted as evidence that the much more complex dynamics of an immigration reform compromise are going to work out just fine, thanks to wheeler-dealers like Schumer who know how to cut a deal. Perhaps it’s unfair to Altman to suggest he’s one of many journalists who perpetually fall for the wheeler-dealer meme, wherein those in the know in “this town” cynically dismiss actual divisions of principle and opinion over big issues because it’s all just positioning and noise before the inevitable deal goes down. But I continue to be amazed at the almost touching faith so many observers place in the magic of Conventional Wisdom to produce actual legislative results: The Powers That Be (viz. business lobbyists and the other Great Big Adults who secretly run the Republican Party) behind the opposition to comprehensive immigration reform have decreed it’s going to happen, so it’s just a matter of time until Chuck Schumer and Republican “pragmatists” sit down and script the end-game.

Yet here’s the thing: Schumer’s absolutely right that the key to operating in a legislative chamber as sharply divided as today’s Senate is to “figure out what motivates” the other side. But what if almost every available motive—true or feigned ideological conviction, residual ethnic bias, a fear of primary challenges, the desire to win the 2016 Iowa Republican Caucuses, a justifiable mistrust of one’s House colleagues, the reluctance to give Barack Obama a “win”—point a number of senators in the direction of not wanting any deal at all? What if the common assumption that fractiousness in Congress is a mask behind which the ever-calculating mind is perpetually ready to drop the act and seal a deal has it totally backwards?

Maybe immigration reform legislation will be enacted this year, but if so it won’t be because some wheeler dealers emerge at the last second to tie up the loose ends of a compromise pre-ordained by a Bipartisan Establishment operating according to enlightened self-interest. The breakdown of both Establishment power and conventional notions of self-interest—in at least one of the two major political parties—is pretty much the big story of contemporary politics. Those who ignore it in analyzing immigration reform legislation are like those who ignored it in assuming no state elected official would be crazy enough to turn down the impossibly generous deal of Medicaid expansion.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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