GOP's Steve King problem: How action on immigration could become a Republican nightmare

Republican leaders can't wait to hammer Obama over his immigration action. But will Tea Partyers take it too far?

Published August 28, 2014 7:08PM (EDT)

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa                            (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

We still do not know what executive action President Obama plans to take on immigration. And that's because he hasn't announced it yet. He and his team are still presumably fielding interest group input and working it out. But never mind this piddle-paddle about "details" and "policy" -- the politics of how everyone's going to react are already firmly established. In fact the reactions are already so clear that they're beginning before the plan is actually released. Hell, why even bother doing anything when everyone's already having this much fun? To effect change and help people, you say? OK, sure.

The Washington Post's Karen Tumulty and Robert Costa this morning look at the political responses that all interested parties and factions have canned or have already set in motion. You're a wise political observer, loyal Salon reader, and you can surely guess them all without too much strenuous mental exercise. But, for what it's worth, here's the gist:

Senate Democrats in tight races will distance themselves. The [thing that Obama presumably does about immigration] is not -- repeat, not -- being perceived by embattled Senate Democrats and Democratic Senate candidates in tight races as helpful. As Costa and Tumulty write, "Some strategists say privately that it would signal that he has written off the Democrats’ prospects for retaining control of the [Senate], deciding to focus on securing his legacy instead." Mark Begich, Kay Hagan, Alison Lundergan Grimes and Jeanne Shaheen have issued various statements organized around the same idea: Republicans are to blame for blocking comprehensive immigration reform, but they don't believe Obama should be taking any action unilaterally. (On the other hand, as the piece notes, the executive action could be a boon to Sen. Mark Udall's reelection campaign in Colorado -- the state's significant Hispanic population was able to push Sen. Michael Bennet over the top in 2010.)

The Republican leadership will complain about Obama's imperial tyranny and yadda yadda yadda -- to a point. "Top GOP aides on Capitol Hill," Tumulty and Costa write, "... said Republicans’ immediate response would be to play up Obama’s past statements about the limits of his authority to make unilateral changes to immigration policy. They would argue that the president is abusing the power of his office, and then focus on endangered Senate Democrats." All according to the "Truce": Obama gets to do his executive actions while Hill Republicans get to score points yelling at him about it. But the trap for Republicans, of course, is that they'll face pressure to back their rhetoric with actual maneuvers, which is where things get hairy.

• Steve King and other far-right anti-immigration types in the House will bring things dangerously close to a government shutdown. "King said in an interview that if Obama does move forward with an executive action, many House Republicans will be unwilling to extend funding for the government that is set to expire at the end of September." King said [whatever Obama does] will put the country into a "constitutional crisis," and didn't want to threaten impeachment but wouldn't rule it out, either. It would not behoove the Republican Party to shut down the government right before midterm elections. But you try getting that point across to the likes of Steve King.

• Democrats will try to make Steve King the face of the GOP before November. Because Steve King's visage is a very unflattering image for a political party to have, and King is an egomaniac who's willing to play the part.

So, to recap: Obama will do [something related to immigration], the GOP will respond by reiterating their midterm message about the lawless Obama presidency while trying to keep a lid on Steve King types who want to consider doing something about it; the Democratic Party will reiterate their midterm message about how the GOP is the nativist, crazy impeachment/government shutdown party.

Doesn't that sound more or less like how the next couple of months would play out, even if Obama wasn't considering some sort of executive action on immigration? The only variable left, then, is how far Obama plans to go in his announcement. And it's not much of a variable at all -- the same reactions will come from all quarters, no matter how limited or extensive it is.

If you're President Obama, then, why not go as big as possible? The reactions will be just the same whether he saves five or 5 million people from imminent deportation. If our politics are going to be this mind-numbingly predictable, take advantage of it.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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