WASHINGTON - â€śModerate Republicans are the people who are there when you donâ€™t need them.â€ť
It was one of former Rep. Barney Frankâ€™s many devastating zingers, and it certainly applies to the fiasco unfolding in the House of Representatives on immigration.
A headline last week on Roll Callâ€™s website might have been channeling Frank, the acerbic Massachusetts Democrat: â€śModerates Punt on Immigration Petition as GOP Goals Drift.â€ť
Drift indeed. What we saw last week embodied the spirit of capitulation that has allowed a once-great party to move toward the extremism and irrationality represented by President Trump. As recently as 2007, a significant share of the GOP, led by former President George W. Bush himself, sought a humane answer to the problem of illegal immigration.
Now, the party of family values is caught up in the forcible separation of children from their parents. Members of the GOP, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, try to rationalize the spectacle of kids torn away from their moms and dads at the border by blaming court decisions or (in Trumpâ€™s case) Democrats.
Thus do Republicans compound their inhumanity with a lie. The only reason this is happening is because of Attorney General Jeff Sessionsâ€™ decision to incarcerate those who enter the country illegally and to take their young children away on the thatâ€™ll-teach-â€™em theory.
Sessions has spoken of this thuggishness with pride. He is, you see, creating a new incentive. â€śIf you donâ€™t want your child separated,â€ť he said last month, â€śthen donâ€™t bring them across the border illegally.â€ť This is cruelty by design.
The Republicans who purport to be above Trumpian nativism briefly threatened to show some spine by taking a stand in defense of immigrants brought to the United States without authorization when they were children. Referred to as Dreamers, they are functionally American in every way except in their legal status.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., organized what is known as a discharge petition to force votes on a series of immigration bills. One of them was a clean effort to give the Dreamers a path to citizenship that was favored to pass if it got a vote.
Every one of the 193 Democrats in the House signed the petition and so did 23 Republicans. It needed only two more GOP signatures to force action. And on the cusp of victory, the so-called moderates caved in to Ryan. The last two endorsements would never come.
Their retreat means that Ryan can bring two bills to the floor this week, a hardline proposal from Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., likely to fail; and a policy mishmash that would achieve many of Trumpâ€™s goals - although Trump briefly embarrassed Ryan on Friday by saying heâ€™d veto the so-called compromise before he reversed himself later that afternoon.
While offering a less generous approach to the Dreamersâ€™ problem, that second bill would also provide billions for Trumpâ€™s â€śbeautiful wall,â€ť a series of new restrictions on legal immigration, and tougher rules for asylum seekers.
Its â€śsolutionâ€ť to the family separation debacle would be to end court-mandated legal protections for children brought across the border so entire families could be jailed together. Now thereâ€™s humanity for you.
The moderates claim they could still fall back on their discharge petition strategy. But having flinched once, thereâ€™s little reason to believe they wonâ€™t balk again.
It gives me no joy to say all this about the GOPâ€™s moderates because my dirty little secret is that I was a teenage liberal Republican - about the most boring thing you can be as an adolescent. My high school yearbook picture is in front of a re-election poster for the late Sen. Jacob K. Javits, a New York Republican who was one of Congressâ€™ great progressives and counted Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt among his heroes.
Before my teen years were out, I decided that progressive Republicanism had a dim future, which turned out to be true. Javits saw it coming in his book â€śOrder of Battle,â€ť published in the mid-1960s. He warned his party against a â€śradical rightâ€ť he described as â€śthe rancorous enemy of the politics of civility that marks the authentic conservative temperament.â€ť
Last week, South Carolina state legislator Katie Arrington ousted stoutly conservative U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford in a Republican primary by arguing that he was insufficiently loyal to the president. Arrington proudly declared: â€śWe are the party of President Donald J. Trump.â€ť
Sheâ€™s right. And those Republicans who still proclaim their allegiance to moderation and civility lack the gumption to do anything about it.
E.J. Dionne is a syndicated columnist.