Update, 11 am 11/19/14: President Obama appears set to announce his move on immigration on Friday. With that in mind, we are re-publishing our piece from last week on just how big a political firestorm his decision will set off. It's below. And, just in case you doubt how poorly Republicans will take all of this, check out this quote from Speaker John Boehner spokesman Michael Steel from Wednesday morning: “If ‘Emperor Obama’ ignores the American people and announces an amnesty plan that he himself has said over and over again exceeds his Constitutional authority, he will cement his legacy of lawlessness and ruin the chances for Congressional action on this issue – and many others.”
Reports are rampant -- Wednesday by Fox News, Thursday by the New York Times -- that President Obama will sign an executive order as soon as next week that will allow up to 5 million undocumented immigrants to avoid deportation. Signing such an order will have explosive political consequences, reshaping not only the near term fights in Congress but also having a potentially profound effect on the two parties' national coalitions heading into the 2016 election and beyond.
Republicans have made very clear if Obama goes forward, it would be the equivalent of giving the middle finger to their incoming majority -- and, by extension, the American public that helped the GOP gain seats in the House and Senate. At a new conference held the day after last week's election, incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) compared Obama signing an executive order on immigration to "waving a red flag in front of a bull." Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) said Obama will "burn himself" if he moves forward, and, on Thursday, promised to fight the move.
You get the idea. Republicans ain't happy -- and they are going to get less happy over the next week to 10 days. No matter what congressional response McConnell and Boehner craft -- and they are undoubtedly looking at their options right now -- the most obvious and predictable outcome of Obama's move on immigration is that any hope of bipartisanship on much of anything in the 114th Congress is probably now out of the question.
Obama knows that. And it would seem he doesn't care. Or rather, he has made the calculation that the chances of genuine bipartisanship on virtually anything was so low in the first place that it didn't make sense to not do what he believes is the right thing. As I've written before, the post-grand-bargain-collapse version of Obama is far less willing to extend his hand to Republicans -- having, in his estimation, had it bitten so many times before. Obama views the "now the well is poisoned" point being made by Republicans as laughable. (Make sure to read the story by Karen Tumulty and Juliet Eilperin on the confrontational approach Obama appears to be adopting for his final two years in office.)
Then there is the political calculus Obama is making as it relates to his own party. His decision to postpone the signing of the executive order until after the election was a clear bow to Democratic senators who were seeking reelection in Republican (or at least Republican-leaning) states who fretted that such a move would doom their chances. Turns out, they were doomed anyway. With Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.), Mark Udall (Colo.) and Mark Begich (Alaska) now all having lost -- and Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.) headed in that direction -- Obama is done waiting around. (And, yes, the fact that none of those people wanted him to campaign for them in the fall miffed Obama.)
With a Republican Party with whom he believes he cannot deal in any meaningful way and what he views as a timid congressional Democratic Party, Obama's decision is a simple one: This is good policy and, in the long term -- and maybe in the short term too -- good politics.
For Obama, signing an executive order like this one -- in addition to his move on DREAMers during the 2012 campaign -- cements him as the first president who succeeded in bringing the millions of people living in the shadows out into the light. For someone who, rightly, sees the possibility of major legislative action on any of his priorities in the final two years of his presidency as a pipe dream, making a move like this one on immigration is his best/only way to build out the pillars of his second-term legacy.
This move is, given the Republicans' strongly stated opposition to it, a bit of an act of provocation on the part of Obama. And, many Democratic strategists hope/believe that conservatives in the House and Senate will react vociferously to it -- and, in so doing, damage the already-not-so-great Republican brand with Hispanics (and voters more generally). Democrats remain convinced that the 2014 election proved nothing about how the country feels about Republicans and, that by exposing some of the elements within the party that GOP leaders have worked to keep quiet in recent months, they can regain the political momentum lost on Nov. 4.
Longer term, the hope in Obama world is that an executive order further cements the Democratic Party as the exclusive (or close to it) home for Hispanic voters. (An aggressive response to the Obama executive order by Republicans -- particularly if it veers from talking about Obama into talking about the Latino community in a negative way -- could well help that process along too.) Democratic House candidates won the Hispanic vote 62 percent to 38 percent in 2014, according to national exit polls. That's actually a considerable improvement from the 29 percent of the Latino vote Republican nominee Mitt Romney got in 2012.
There is real long-term political danger here for Republicans. Remember that in the wake of Romney's defeat, the Republican National Committee commissioned an autopsy to diagnose what went wrong for their side -- and how to fix it. One of the central conclusions of that document was that Republicans needed to be for some sort of comprehensive immigration reform in order to take that issue off the table for Hispanics, and allow the GOP to talk to that community about other things. Here's the relevant section of that report:
We are not a policy committee, but among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond, we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only. We also believe that comprehensive immigration reform is consistent with Republican economic policies that promote job growth and opportunity for all.
Obama is moving a major chess piece with his executive order. Republicans must be careful with their countermove. It will have implications that last well beyond 2014 -- or even 2016.