Tea Partyer's messaging mistake: Admits executive orders don't stop GOP from writing legislation

Sen. Ron Johnson is introducing some immigration bill? Well this complicates the "poison well" chatter

By Jim Newell
Published November 12, 2014 5:00PM (EST)
Ron Johnson                (Reuters/Jason Reed)
Ron Johnson (Reuters/Jason Reed)

The metaphors on the Republican side are crisp and violent: If Obama takes executive action on immigration, he will be "poisoning the well." He will burn himself playing with matches. Executive action, according to Mitch McConnell, would be akin to "waving a red flag in front of a bull." Internal poisoning, skin-charring and bovine assaults are among the corporeal injuries that President Obama is imposing on himself, the federal government and the American public through his tyrannical shifting and reprioritizing of certain resources within the executive branch.

The impression they're trying to lock in is that if Obama announces some executive action on immigration -- which he seems(?) like he's still determined to do -- this will somehow eliminate congressional Republicans' ability to pass the immigration legislation that they claim to be so, so interested in passing. It's an interesting argument. We're not sure that the executive action will feature a clause reading, "Congress is no longer allowed to pass its own immigration laws." Everyone can agree that that would be really unconstitutional.

So it's almost like the "poisoning the well" rhetoric is just being used as a convenient pretext for congressional Republicans' inevitable inaction on this matter.

But hey now what's this? Tea Party Sen. Ron Johnson is putting together some sort of immigration bill? Hasn't anyone told him about the poisoned well?

Even as President Barack Obama prepares to take executive action on immigration, an incoming GOP Senate chairman said Monday he is working on a border security bill and will aim to move it once the new Republican-controlled Congress convenes in January.

Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who is in line to chair the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said his legislation would include a guest worker program to reduce incentives for illegal immigration. It would build on work already done by Congress, including a House bill aimed at ensuring that 90 percent of would-be border crossers are stopped.

It's great to see Sen. Ron Johnson, who once dumped all of his legislative staffers in order to "pivot to messaging," get down to the critical work of lawmaking. It's almost like he might have a difficult reelection coming up ("coming up" in two years) and will have to pretend to be a decent senator for a few months. So here we've got a blue-ish state Republican senator working to cover his ass by putting together a conservative, non-comprehensive immigration bill -- but still one that will include some sort of vaguely defined guest worker program. That will be enough to earn him many conservative detractors, since it violates the current GOP immigration creed of "Don't ever let anyone into the country to do anything else ever again."

What was most interesting/funny about Johnson's interview with the AP, though, was his take on the whole well-poisoning business (emphasis ours):

Regardless of what President Obama does I’m going to move forward with a very strong border security bill,” Johnson said. “I hope President Obama doesn’t take that executive action because I think for many people that will poison the well and certainly make it more difficult to solve the immigration problem.”

Ron Johnson has let slip a serious messaging error here: He's admitted that a) President Obama can take executive action and b) Congress can still do stuff.

This works against the McConnell-Boehner line that through some strange witchcraft, Obama taking executive action precludes Congress from doing its own immigration work. That the executive action will cast a spell on the Republican leaders that renders them unable to lift their arms to bring a bill to the floor. Johnson says he doesn't want Obama to take the order because it will poison the well "for many people," but apparently not him. He's the sort of guy who might like to establish some bill-authorship cred before having, say, a rematch against Russ Feingold in a presidential electorate in Wisconsin.

It's unusual the extent to which this well-poisoning line has worked for Republicans. The media is mostly buying into this strange logic that hurt feelings and a "lack of trust" are compelling reasons to forgo important legislative action -- rather than an excuse that Republicans in less-dire electoral waters than Ron Johnson's are latching onto to dismiss something that they have no interest in doing.

Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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