When Abraham Lincoln first presented a version of the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet, Secretary of State William Seward warned that issuing it after a defeat would look desperate. Better to wait “until the eagle of victory takes his flight” and then “hang your proclamation about his neck.” Lincoln postponed action until after the Union victory (such as it was) at Antietam.
Our president today apparently regards an executive order on immigration — which might grant legal status to millions of undocumented adults — in the same historical category. But he seems intent on hanging his proclamation about the neck of an electoral defeat — more a lame duck than an eagle. And there would be serious political and social consequences to such a strategy.
As someone who supports the goal of providing legal status and a realistic path to citizenship for law-abiding undocumented workers — as part of comprehensive immigration reform — I sympathize with President Obama’s frustration. Republicans in Congress could have, should have, agreed to comprehensive legislation in 2007 when President George W. Bush pushed for it, and in 2013 when the Senate approved it. At some point, the GOP must put this issue behind it and begin serious outreach to Latinos.
But politics (in a democracy at least) is not only about outcomes but also about methods. And the manner in which a great policy matter is resolved can leave it unresolved. The passage of the Affordable Care Act on a party-line march — which could not even attract the support of moderate Republicans such as Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) — helped turn health care into a divisive, highly ideological debate. No elected Republican had a political or emotional investment in the legislative outcome. And the advocates of a conservative approach to health-care reform were placed on the defensive. Supporting an alternative to Obamacare (at least for a time) was viewed by some conservative activists as ideological softness.
The aggressive use of executive orders to limit greenhouse-gas emissions (also promised by the Obama administration) would probably reinforce similar attitudes. Confronting climate change — which drew bipartisan attention a decade ago — would be confirmed in the minds of many Republicans as a radical, progressive project. Conservatives concerned about the issue would be (further) marginalized and discredited.
An ambitious executive order by Obama on immigration would result in an even greater ideological storm. Nearly all Republicans would have deep legal and procedural objections. Many would be convinced that Obama is playing a ruthless form of politics with serious constitutional matters. Some, surely and sadly, would be driven into discrediting fits of anti-immigrant rage. (If this reaction figures anywhere in Obama’s calculation as a political upside, it would be a particularly sickening form of cynicism.)
Some progressive commentators have argued that, since Republicans are hopeless on these issues anyway, they might as well be steamrolled. This implies a profound disdain for democratic procedures. It also involves a belief that Republican legislators will never be part of a broadly accepted legislative outcome on immigration; that they will never join a legitimate and respected democratic consensus. And just because Obama could not achieve this — with an off-putting manner and one of the weakest legislative operations of modern times — does not mean it is unachievable.
This is not the Civil War. Obama’s recourse to an executive order would be a form of confession that he could not make the legislative process work on one of the most important policy matters facing our nation. But another president might.
If Obama takes this path, congressional Republicans will have flawed and limited options. Talk of impeachment would be politically suicidal. Attempting to shut down the government has been disastrously tried before. Legal challenges will be attempted. But the real problem for Republicans is that they lost the presidency in 2012 — an office with considerable powers even after a midterm presidential repudiation. And whatever strategy Republicans select should be designed to increase their chances of securing the presidency in 2016, instead of merely venting understandable but self-destructive outrage.
After a series of national elections that empowered two parties on an ideological collision course, Americans are about to be treated to a magnified version of everything they hate: overreach, backlash, deadlock, threats and lasting bitterness. It is like a Shakespearean drama — without the interesting characters and quality dialogue. Everyone seems driven by his or her own angels and demons toward predictable tragedy. Something senseless this way comes.