The GOP's best response to Obama's immigration move: Toothless griping
Helping immigrants in America has never been much of a political winner. While most Americans wouldn't be Americans if their forebears hadn't entered the U.S., the nation has always had a strong nativist streak. Time and again, the last group that entered the country en masse wants to shut the door on the next.
But welcoming in the tired, poor, "huddled masses yearning to breathe free," as Emma Lazarus memorably put it in The New Colossus, has also long been a part of America's self-identity. Politically, if not substantively, there's a difference between sitting on your hands while hardworking illegal immigrants are deported in large numbers and actively opposing efforts to help them.
President Obama is about to make a politically perilous move on immigration. The GOP has some tough choices in how best to respond. Republicans can't do nothing, but their best bet is probably to avoid doing anything substantive, loudly.
On Thursday evening, Obama is going to formally announced some executive orders giving up to 5 million of the nation's estimated 11.7 illegal immigrants the right to apply for at least temporary legal residency and work permits. They won't be eligible for food stamps, welfare, or other federal benefits, including subsidies to buy health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, or get a path to citizenship.
A good number of eligible immigrants won't apply, and the orders could be overturned by a future president. But while "everybody agrees our immigration system is broken," Obama said in a video posted to Facebook on Wednesday, "Washington has allowed the problem to fester for too long."
"What I'm going to be laying out is the things that I can do with my lawful authority as president to make the system better," Obama continued, "even as I continue to work with Congress and encourage them to get a bipartisan, comprehensive bill that can solve the entire problem."
Nobody thinks that's going to happen.
Republicans don't have the political will or numbers to enact immigration reform in the next Congress. If House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had put a comprehensive, bipartisan immigration Senate bill up for a vote, it would have passed. A big reason Obama is acting now instead of last spring is because, in secret talks with the speaker, he gave Boehner the summer to make a move on immigration. He didn't. There's no reason to think he will in the future, with or without Obama's actions.
So Obama is acting. The big question now is how Republicans will react. The Week's Jon Terbush makes a compelling political case for the GOP to force a government shutdown over Obama's executive orders. But the reason the Republican Party recovered from the last politically tone-deaf shutdown is that the Obama administration effectively bailed it out by botching the rollout of the federal ObamaCare website.
If Republicans overreact to Obama's executive orders, they run the risk of repaying the favor. The story won't be that "Emperor Obama" allegedly exceeded his authority, as Republicans want it to be. If they shut down the government, that will be the big news. If they pass freestanding legislation to reverse Obama's executive orders, then they will feed a narrative that they lack the will to fix the immigration system, but are eager to deport the parents of legal citizens and scores of children who grew up in the U.S. and have known no other home.
Republicans may not listen to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who cautioned Wednesday that the GOP "response has to be measured — can't capitulate, can't overreact," specifying that "impeachment or shutting down the entire government would be an unwise move."
But maybe they'll listen to American for Tax Reform's Grover Norquist, U.S. Chamber of Commerce president Thomas Donahue, and other conservatives and business interests who made a coordinated push Wednesday to convince Republicans to pursue a congressional solution to America's immigration problem, regardless of what Obama does.
"When the president makes his announcement, Republicans really face two choices," counseled Charles Conner of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. "They can be goaded into declaring this almost a holy war, or they can certainly not support the president, but temper their criticism of the president and go about their business of governing and solving this problem."
It's a nice idea — good for businesses, politically savvy, good for the GOP's demographic future — but totally unrealistic at this political moment. Republicans have, to borrow a phrase, poisoned the well on immigration reform.
The GOP's best plausible reaction to Obama's orders is to continue to react as it has through most of the Obama presidency: Loudly denounce Obama, accuse him of "shredding the Constitution," threaten lawsuits or actually file suit — and quietly move on to other issues. On immigration, what the GOP doesn't do can't hurt them.
If, in a month or two, we're still talking about how Obama is dragging America toward tyranny, the Republican Party played its hand well. If we're discussing how Republicans are doing everything in their power to stop him — up to and including shutting down the government to force the breakup of Latino families — it's probably time for another round of Republican soul-searching.