Last week, House Republican leaders made a big production out of unveiling a one-page document (depending on the margins, anyhow) explaining the party's putative principles for reforming the country's immigration system.
The point of this exercise was to demonstrate the GOP's seriousness about addressing the issue before the end of the year, but nearly all of the reporting from inside GOP conference gatherings suggested widespread opposition to immigration reform as a 2014 project, if not to the principles themselves, among elected members.
Their rejectionism was reflected in statements from well-heeled conservative advocacy groups, who torched the principles as amnesty in disguise, and established a real dilemma for GOP leaders: Would they cut party reactionaries loose, like they did in the most recent budget standoff? And if so, why not agree to a more immigrant-friendly set of principles? Why make concessions to the reactionaries if they aren't going to buy in anyhow.
It looks like we'll never get an answer to question two. House Speaker John Boehner didn't exactly kill immigration reform on Thursday. But check out this windup -- from "having said that" to "frankly."
As you all know for the past 15 months, I've talked about the need to get immigration reform done. This is an important issue in our country, it's been kicked around forever and it needs to be dealt with. Having said that, we outlined our principles last week to our members -- principles that our members by and large support. It was put together by the leadership team -- they believe in it. But I never underestimated the difficulty in moving forward this year. And the reason I said that we needed a step-by-step, common-sense approach to this is so that we can build trust with the American people that we're doing this the right way. And frankly one of the biggest obstacles we face is one of trust. The American people, including many of my members, don't trust that the reform that we're talking about will be implemented as it was intended to be. The president seems to change the health care law on a whim whenever he likes. Now he's running around the country telling everyone that he's going to keep acting on his own. He keeps talking about his phone and his pen. And he's feeding more distrust about whether he's committed to the rule of law…. There's widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our law. And it's going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes…. The president's going to have to demonstrate to the American people and to my colleagues that he can be trusted to enforce the law as it is written.
You don't do that kind of throat clearing if everything's a go, and you don't pass the buck if the outcome is something you want to own.
And as that was happening, GOP aides were leaking clearer information to Fox News.
But there are two ways of interpreting the buck passing itself. The first is that Republicans genuinely believe record deportation levels under the Obama administration, and all of the guff President Obama's taken from immigration activists for not halting deportations altogether, is an elaborate fake-out and Obama will do a complete about-face once he signs a bill into law. The other is that Republican leaders need a better excuse for not acting than that party activists don't want them to.
Among these two competing hypotheses, which requires making the fewest assumptions? Tellingly, elected Republicans never mention deportations when they make the lawlessness excuse. They actually refuse to acknowledge it altogether. Instead it's something something employer mandate.
When Boehner says the president must demonstrate his commitment to the rule of law, though, does anyone really think he means that Obama must implement the employer mandate now instead of several months from now? Reverse his administrative decision allowing insurance companies to grandfather more health insurance plans? Decline to set a higher minimum wage in future federal contracts in a way Boehner himself believes is legal? Obviously not.
The upshot is that this is all so incredibly obvious that it won't fool anybody. Senate Democrats have passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill with the help of several Republicans, and Obama has issued fewer "lawless" executive orders than any of his recent predecessors. This has all unfolded so plainly that no amount of buck passing will create any confusion about what's actually happened and who's responsible.