Liberals are furious, but the gun issue will not significantly damage the Republican Party. Sure, it looks bad to oppose background checks, which have overwhelming popular support. Sure, the party looks extreme when it can't accept a bill sponsored by the conservative Sen. Joe Manchin and the very conservative Sen. Pat Toomey.
The main reason the gun issue won't significantly harm Republicans is that it doesn't play into the core debate that will shape the future of the party. The issue that does that is immigration. The near-term future of American politics will be determined by who wins the immigration debate.
In the months since the election, a rift has opened between the Republicans you might call first-wave revolutionaries and those you might call second-wave revolutionaries. The first-wave revolutionaries (the party's congressional leaders) think of themselves as very conservative. They ejected the moderates from their ranks. They sympathize with the tea party. They are loyal to Fox News and support a radical restructuring of the government.
These first-wave revolutionaries are trying to adjust their conservatism to win majority support. They are trying to find policies to boost social mobility, so Republicans look less like the party of the rich. They are swinging behind immigration reform, believing Latinos won't even listen to Republicans until they put that issue in the rearview mirror.
The second-wave revolutionaries -- like Rand Paul (on some issues), Jim DeMint, Ted Cruz and some cutting-edge talk radio jocks -- see the first-wave revolutionaries as a bunch of incompetent establishmentarians. They speak of the Bush-Cheney administration as if it were some sort of liberal Republican regime run by Nelson Rockefeller and Jacob Javits. They argue that Republicans have lost elections recently because the party has been led by big-spending, mushy moderates like John McCain and Mitt Romney and managed by out-of-touch elitists like Karl Rove and Reince Priebus.
What the party needs now, they argue, is an ultra-Goldwaterite insurgency that topples the "establishment," ditches immigration reform and wins Latino votes by appealing to the evangelicals among them and offering them economic liberty.
The first and second wavers are just beginning their immigration clash. A few weeks ago, I would have thought the pro-immigration forces had gigantic advantages, but now it is hard to be sure.
The immigration fight will be pitting a cohesive insurgent opposition force against a fragile coalition of bipartisan proponents who have to ambivalently defend a sprawling piece of compromise legislation. We've seen this kind of fight before. Things usually don't end well for the proponents.
It is easy to imagine that the underlying political landscape, which prevented progress in the past, has changed. But when you actually try to pass something, you often discover the underlying landscape has not changed. The immigration fight of 2013 might bear an eerie similarity to the fight of 2007.
It is just a fact that the big short- term beneficiaries of this law are not generally Republicans: The 11 million who are living in the shadows; the high-tech entrepreneurs who will get more skilled labor. The short-term losers, meanwhile, are often Republicans: White working- class people who will face a new group of competition when they try to get jobs in retail; the taxpayers who, at least in the short term, will have to pay some additional costs.
In the past, Republican politicians have had trouble saying no to the latest and most radical insurgency.
It would be great if Republicans can hash out their differences over a concrete policy matter, especially immigration, which touches conservatism's competing values. But if the insurgent right defeats immigration reform, that will be a sign that the party's self- marginalization will continue. The revolution devours its own.
THE NEW YORK TIMES