Morton Kondracke

In evident pain and remorse, a Republican senator confessed to a Hispanic group from Maryland that his vote to kill immigration reform was "a profile in political cowardice."

It was exactly that and not only for him, but for many senators who were terrorized by the political firestorm set loose by mainly right-wing radio and television talk-show loudmouths.

The collapse of immigration reform on Thursday casts deep doubt on whether America's current political leaders can solve any large problem, especially when demagogues can stir up passion against it.

The instant case is immigration, but, in 2005, President Bush tried to start a discussion about Social Security reform and it was torpedoed by reactionary liberal demagogues, who scared current seniors into thinking they'd lose benefits.

Bush certainly deserves a large measure of blame for the failure of bipartisan problem-solving. He has reached out to opponents only on rare occasions. Most of the time, he has inspired hyper-partisanship both on his side and within the Democratic opposition.

In the case of immigration reform, where his heart is in the right place, he should have used his influence years ago to win over the Republican base, including the talk-show claque.

He also should have made border enforcement a key priority of his administration far earlier in order to defuse criticism that promises to restrict illegal immigration were empty.

By the time the Bush administration put on a push for comprehensive immigration reform, the president's political capital was so depleted that he could persuade no one.

This year's heavy lifting on behalf of reform was done by a previous opponent Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., whose state is ground zero in the immigration struggle and who came to realize this was a problem to be solved, not left to fester.

Kyl worked out a compromise measure with liberal Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., that was considerably to the right of the one that passed the Senate in 2006 by a vote of 62-36.

The measure guaranteed extra money for building fencing between the United States and Canada, a requirement (onerous, in my mind) that guest workers return home for a year after two-year stints in the United States, plus fines and fees for illegal immigrants to be used to help communities bear the costs of the federal government's past failure to make the border secure.

These and other gains were not enough, however, for radio and TV shouters such as Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Pat Buchanan and Lou Dobbs, who convinced masses of citizens that the Kyl-Kennedy bill still amounted to "amnesty" for 12 million illegal immigrants.

Sometimes intentionally, sometimes not, the talkers have stirred up anti-Hispanic racism and certainly anti-immigrant nativism. They also have indulged in what I'd call "Javert-ism," after Jean Valjean's nemesis in "Les Miserables," the attitude that any leniency toward lawbreakers will upset all order in the universe.

In 2006, a much more liberal bill got 26 Republican votes. On Thursday, only 12 Republicans voted to keep reform alive.

What can only be called the "cowardice caucus" those who voted "yes" in 2006 and "no" this year includes Republican Sens. Sam Brownback (Kansas), who actually voted "yes" on Thursday, then changed his vote, Norm Coleman (Minnesota), Susan Collins (Maine), Pete Domenici (New Mexico), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Gordon Smith (Oregon), George Voinovich (Ohio) and John Warner (Virginia.).

It also includes Democratic Sens. Max Baucus (Montana), Evan Bayh (Indiana), Jeff Bingaman (New Mexico), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Tom Harkin (Iowa), Mary Landrieu (Louisiana) and Mark Pryor (Arkansas). Those not scared off by restrictionists did the bidding of the AFL-CIO, which was hostile to the guest-worker program.

There was a "courage caucus" as well, led by Kyl and including GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), John McCain (Arizona), Trent Lott (Mississippi), Bob Bennett (Utah), Larry Craig (Idaho) and Judd Gregg (New Hampshire), whose immediate political fortunes can't be helped by their support for reform.

The most lasting and deserved political fallout from the failure of reform surely will be the Republican Party's loss of support among Hispanic voters.

Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, but Republican Congressional candidates received only 29 percent in 2006, according to exit polls. A recent Gallup Poll showed that only 11 percent now identify as Republicans.

But there are other foul consequences. The Democratic Congress has failed to solve one of the country's biggest problems. There was a fair chance for bipartisan success, but it couldn't be brought to pass.

It was the result, in part, of public dissatisfaction with Congress and lack of trust in it. Polls consistently showed that the public supported the elements of comprehensive immigration reform including earned legalization but opposed the Senate bill.

The failure to solve this problem will only deepen dissatisfaction.

Meanwhile, the big winners in this fight are demagogues with microphones and their political allies. What they will demand next, presumably, is a campaign to drive illegal immigrants out of the country. You can expect to see some ugly scenes of families being torn apart and U.S. citizens of Hispanic origin being victimized. That's the price of cowardice.

(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)