Sen. Jeff Sessions is now Attorney General Sessions. The Alabama Senator was confirmed on Wednesday night in a straight party-line vote in the Senate, 48-52. The fight over his nomination generated some media-genic moments, most noticeably Sen. Warren’s ‘persistent‘ stand and Sen. Scott reading the bigoted Tweets he’d received for supporting Sessions. But in the end, it was a stunning display of the impotence of the Democratic Party and some of its major constituencies. Not one GOP Senator voted against Sessions (compared to two defections for Betsy DeVos, scourge of the teacher’s unions.) Cory Booker broke 200-plus years of tradition to testify against a fellow Senator, and it turns out that all he had to say was that he was running for President in 2020.
Whether due to tactical miscalculation or reasons that have more to do with the left’s sense of history and self-image, Democrats crafted a narrative of opposition to Sessions not on hot-button issues—such as immigration, asset forfeiture, and criminal justice reform—where the Senator has open and honest difference of opinion with them, but on the charge that he was secretly a full-blown, unreconstructed racist.
This decision probably hurt the immigration-reform lobby most of all. Sessions has been the leading immigration hawk in the Senate for 20 years, and he would likely have testfied proudly, even happily, to his convictions on the subject. A clever Democratic party could have used this moment to pin down the nascent Trump Administration’s plans on the immigration front (remember, the hearings started before Trump’s inauguration) and start shaping the narrative on immigration for the fights to come. They may even have been able to build bridges to some immigration-friendly Republicans in the process, and/or call Sessions’ confirmation into doubt.
Instead, all Sen. Sessions had to do was prove his sheets were in the linen closet not the clothes closet, and he cleared the bar the Democrats had set for him. In the process, the Democrats hacked off all kinds of Rs who might not normally be Sen. Session’s closest allies. Senators such as the pro-criminal justice reform, non-Southern Orrin Hatch of notably Trump-skeptic Utah took a look at the heap of praise from Democratic colleagues, cosponsored bills, and NAACP awards that Sessions was able to point to, and concluded that the confirmation fight was another Borking—a smearing of Republicans-as-racist that has become a dreary matter of course.
Now that it’s over, the biggest upshot for Republicans of all stripes—Trump-train to Trump-skeptic—is that President Trump now has a Attorney General with both the personal pull (Sessions was Trump’s earliest Senatorial supporter) and formal position to stand up to some of the wackier legal maneuvers that have marked the Administration’s early weeks. It seems clear at this point, for instance, that Trump’s executive order on refugees would have benefitted from going through the normal legal review process and being more carefully tailored; Sessions, both as AG and as Stephen Miller’s former boss, would have been well positioned to make sure that happened.
But could Sessions’ nomination also be a good thing for liberals who support the cause of ‘comprehensive’ immigration reform? In short term, the answer is obviously no. Sessions will not leave his restrictionist convictions at the Senate door; rather, he’s poised to lead the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration and related practices, from increased criminal deportations to the fight against sanctuary cities. None of these, to say the least, are reformer priorities.
But in the long term, answer may be more complicated. The single greatest fear of the restrictionists, over the last two generations, has been that any deal they strike will not be worth the paper it is written on, because the enforcement provisions won’t be upheld. This fear is grounded in the failure of the 1986 amnesty-for-enforcement deal; it persisted through several pro-immigration Presidents of both parties, and was severely exacerbated recently by President Obama’s DACA/DAPA executive orders. But Sessions is ultra-credible on the issue: so long as he’s in office, restrictionists will feel they have a man they can trust to uphold any enforcement mechanisms they barter for. More broadly, they will likely feel they can trust the Administration.
It’s very doubtful that in the current environment, this will lead to a ‘comprehensive’ bill. But if over the next few years anyone in Congress is minded to work toward smaller yet still significant bargains—for instance, trading the normalization of Obama’s executive childhood amnesty for increased enforcement measures, or funding the Wall in return for tailored reform measures—they may find it easier to do so because of the Sessions pick.
When talking about the unique ability noted hardliners have to build bridges, it’s customary to say, only Nixon can go to China. But Nixon had his Kissinger. Has Trump just found his?