Ignore the Tea Party! Here’s how to really solve the immigration mess

Democrats are worried Obama will anger conservatives by acting on immigration. It's a little late for that

Topics: Barack Obama, Democrats, Republicans, Conservatives, Tea Party, Immigration Reform, Comprehensive Immigration Reform, Deportation, mass deportations, executive orders, Immigration, Immigration Policy, Politico, Washington Post, Editor's Picks,

Ignore the Tea Party! Here's how to <em>really</em> solve the immigration mess (Credit: AP/Isaac Brekken)

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent has been plugging away diligently on the immigration politics beat, and he reports this morning on the internal discussions Democrats are having with regard to the scope and political impact of President Obama’s forthcoming executive actions on immigration. It turns out the Democrats, as is their wont, are in mild disarray:

According to two sources familiar with internal discussions, some top Dems have wondered allowed whether Obama going big would further inflame the GOP base, with little payoff for Dems in red states where Latinos might not be a key factor. I don’t want to overstate this: These are merely discussions, not necessarily worries.

Indeed, some Dems are making the opposite case, and that argument is described well in a new Politico piece out this morning. The story notes that Obama has privately told immigration advocates demanding ambitious action that they might not get what they want, telling them: “We need to right-size expectations.”

I’m not a political strategist and I realize that prudence demands that all the angles be covered, but the phrase “further inflame the GOP base” seems pretty illogical. They’re already inflamed. It’s hard to imagine what further inflammation could look like.

Let’s consider two scenarios. In the first scenario, Obama goes full-bore on his immigration action and announces sweeping changes and overhauls that reach the outermost boundary of his legal authority. How would the GOP’s conservative base react? “Tyranny!” “Imperial president!” “Obummer is not a king!” And so forth.

In the second scenario, Obama hugely dials back the scope of his executive action and makes only minor adjustments to existing immigration policies and programs. How would the GOP’s conservative base react? “Tyranny!” “Imperial president!” “Obummer is not a king!” And so forth.

Being mad at Obama is basically what being a conservative means these days, and there is little the White House could do that wouldn’t enrage the right. This is especially true of immigration. Obama set records for deportations by a president as part of an effort to convince conservatives and Republicans that he was serious about enforcing immigration laws. All it earned him was attacks from Republicans for “refusing to enforce the law,” and a Sarah Palin Op-Ed calling for his impeachment. The GOP is incensed over the humanitarian crisis at the border, but also slow-footing Obama’s request for funds to deal with it. If the right refuses to operate in good faith, why fret over how conservatives will react? Just assume that they’ll call him a tyrant and move on.

The more pressing concern for the president is seeing his allies on immigration reform abandon him for lack of bold action. Obama’s heavy hand on deportations failed to win over conservatives, but it did much to disillusion immigration reform advocates, some of whom have taken to calling Obama the “deporter-in-chief.” Politico reported this morning that Obama’s immigration allies are expecting aggressive executive action:

Obama’s comment underscored the political stakes of his promise to take the most aggressive steps of his presidency to fix the system.

The White House needs to mollify progressive allies who are demanding payback from an administration that has long disappointed them on immigration. Some in the Democratic coalition are even contemplating a stay-at-home-in-November strategy if Obama does little beyond what they see as symbolic measures.

According to Politico, the White House is trying to temper those expectations and is also worrying about setting a bad precedent:

Within the White House, there’s a sense that the president does have significant legal authority to act, although aides anticipate that Republicans will oppose any administrative actions, big or small. But Obama and his aides have also signaled to advocates that he doesn’t want to create the modern template for presidents acting unilaterally and governing by going to court with Congress.

That’s a fine concern, but it’s also something they should have considered before embarking on a strategy to use executive action to ameliorate Congress’ failures to govern. When you say things like “America does not believe in standing still,” and “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone,” you’ve pretty well set yourself up for creating the template for a president to act unilaterally. What’s more, they’ve given every indication that a failure to legislate on immigration reform would be met with aggressive presidential action. “It does seem that half-measures are a recipe for making everyone angry,” Washington Monthly’s Ed Kilgore observes.

The crisis at the border obviously complicates the situation and Obama has to make an explicit and convincing argument for why action is needed now. But the White House spent the last six months boxing themselves in on executive action. It’s too late to fret about the expectations game and long past time to stop worrying about what the Tea Party will think.

Simon Maloy

Simon Maloy is Salon's political writer. Email him at smaloy@salon.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SimonMaloy.

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