Executive order on immigration would ignite a political firestorm

President Obama met with congressional leaders in the Old Family Dining Room of the White House on Nov. 7, 2014. (Evan Vucci/AP)

By Chris Cillizza Reporter November 16 at 6:07 PM

Reports are rampant that President Obama will sign an executive order as soon as this week that will allow up to 5 million undocumented immigrants to avoid deportation. Signing such an order would have explosive political consequences — it would not only reshape the near-term fights in Congress but also have a potentially profound effect on the two parties’ national coalitions heading into the 2016 election and beyond.

Republicans have made it clear that if Obama goes forward, it would be the equivalent of giving the middle finger to their incoming majority — and, by extension, the American public, which helped the GOP gain seats in the House and Senate on Nov. 4.

At a news conference held the day after the midterm elections, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the incoming Senate majority leader, compared Obama’s signing of an executive order on immigration to “waving a red flag in front of a bull.” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said Obama will “burn himself” if he moves forward.

You get the idea. Republicans ain’t happy — and they are likely to get a lot less happy over the next week or so. No matter what congressional response McConnell and Boehner craft — and they are undoubtedly looking at their options — the most obvious and predictable outcome of Obama’s expected move on immigration is that any hope of bipartisanship on much of anything in the 114th Congress, set to convene in January, would probably be out of the question.

Obama knows that. And it would seem he doesn’t care. Or rather, he has made the calculation that the chances of genuine bipartisanship on virtually anything was so low in the first place that it didn’t make sense not to do what he believes is the right thing. The post-grand-bargain-collapse version of Obama is far less willing to extend his hand to Republicans — having, in his estimation, had it bitten so many times before. He views the “now the well is poisoned” point being made by Republicans as laughable.

Twenty-eight years ago the United States implemented a plan that offered amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants. Hear from one of the architects of the bill and key players as they discuss where it went wrong. (The Washington Post)

Then there is the political calculus Obama is making as it relates to his own party. His decision to postpone the signing of the executive order until after the 2014 elections was a clear bow to Democratic senators seeking reelection in Republican (or at least Republican-leaning) states, who fretted that such a move would doom their chances.

Turns out, they were doomed anyway. With Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.), Mark Udall (Colo.) and Mark Begich (Alaska) all having lost — and Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.) headed in that direction — Obama is done waiting around. (And, yes, the fact that none of those people wanted him to campaign for them in the fall miffed him.)

With a Republican Party with which he believes he cannot deal in any meaningful way and a timid congressional Democratic Party (in his estimation), Obama’s decision is a simple one: This is good policy and, in the long term — maybe in the short term, too — good politics.

For Obama, signing an executive order such as this one — in addition to his move on Dreamers during the 2012 campaign — would cement him as the first president who succeeded in bringing the millions of people living in the shadows into the light. For someone who, rightly, sees the possibility of major legislative action on any of his priorities in the final two years of his presidency as a pipe dream, making such a move on immigration is his best/only way to build out a pillar of his second-term legacy.

This decision, given the Republicans’ strongly stated opposition to it, would also be a bit of an act of purposeful provocation on his part. And, many Democratic strategists hope/believe that conservatives in the House and Senate would react vociferously to it — and, in so doing, damage the already-not-so-great Republican brand among Hispanics (and voters more generally). Democrats — and Obama in particular — remain convinced that the 2014 elections proved nothing about how the country feels about Republicans, and that by exposing some of the elements within the Republican Party that its leaders have worked to keep quiet in recent months, they can regain the political momentum lost this month.

Longer term, the hope in Obama world is that an executive order would further cement the Democratic Party as the exclusive (or close to it) home for Hispanic voters. (An aggressive response to the Obama executive order by Republicans — particularly if it veers from talking about Obama to talking about the Latino community in a negative way — could well help that process along, too.) Democratic House candidates won the Hispanic vote 62 percent to 38 percent in 2014, according to national exit polls. That’s a considerable improvement for Republicans from the 29 percent of the Latino vote that Mitt Romney got in 2012.

There is real long-term political danger here for Republicans. Remember that in the wake of Romney’s defeat, the Republican National Committee commissioned an autopsy to diagnose what went wrong — and what it needed to do to fix it. One of the central conclusions of that document was that Republicans had to be for some sort of comprehensive immigration reform to take that issue off the table for Hispanics and allow the GOP to talk to that community about other things. Here’s the relevant section of that report:

President Obama, speaking at a news conference in Burma on Friday, said he would take action to reform U.S. immigration policy before the end of the year. (Reuters)

“We are not a policy committee, but among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond, we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only. We also believe that comprehensive immigration reform is consistent with Republican economic policies that promote job growth and opportunity for all.”

Obama is moving a major chess piece on the board with his planned executive order. Republicans must be careful with their countermove. It will have implications that last well beyond 2014 — or even 2016.

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