If Republicans were expecting to be sworn into office in January and find a contrite president agreeable to their ideas and willing to work with them to get things done one thing should be perfectly clear now. The dream is over. And if the elephants don’t get their act together fast they’re going to fall right into the trap that is being laid for them. Whatever else analysts have to say about the 2014 elections, the results stand as a defeat for President Obama and his party. But the president is not acting like he lost anything. GOP control of Congress is not a roadblock, it’s liberation. Any policy priority he chooses is open to executive action. Today that includes immigration; tomorrow it could include delaying the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act again or raising the minimum wage. Anything is possible, his pen and phone at the ready, because Republicans will not work with President Obama by providing him with the kind of legislation he wants. There is a house of cards supporting the White House in its post-election strategy that is built around a few basic notions.
The first is that Democrats in Congress will not object to executive action over separation of powers because it’s being used to advance their agenda. If they have a red line the White House has not crossed it. The second is the elephants themselves. Since losing Congress in 2006 they’ve been on the defensive and regaining the House of Representatives in 2010 did little to change that because any action the House took could still be bottled up in the Senate. The experience has left them with a fractured identity, given voice by Senators Mike Lee and John Thune, ready to “stand up to the president” or to lament his choice of “friction, partisanship and accomplishment” over “cooperation.” Initiative belongs to the White House either way because either way Republicans are reacting to the president. The last is Democrats know they have a reliable base of support, one that returned the president to office in 2012, and one they haven’t really had to compete for. President Obama’s executive orders on immigration are an attempt to expand that base, one that will succeed if the GOP is reckless in its response.
For all the attention they’ve generated the president’s orders did not accomplish anything lasting because they have no connection to existing law; they expand on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals directive from 2012 and add work permits and deportation relief to the mix. As a result the 5 million or so immigrants who stand to benefit from them will be left to the discretion of the next administration in 2017. The White House is putting on a show, casting itself and its allies as the heroes protecting immigrants from the mob in black hats. That would be Republicans. The show has another purpose. It is an attempt to provoke Congress into passing a “comprehensive” bill that would give statutory support to the president’s directives. Representative Ed Royce has set out an alternative, one that in the right hands could become a four point plan with border security, employer verification, visas for high-skilled workers, and status for the undocumented as its priorities. The point is for Republicans to retake the initiative by putting their own ideas on the table.
There is risk in putting forward any specifics. The long knives will be out on both sides for anything that does not meet their standards. The president may issue a veto threat for any bill that does not meet his. The right wing elephants are already mobilizing, searching for the perfect royal epithet to describe the latest White House directive. The “a” word is flying. While speaking to reporters at the Capitol Michelle Bachman had her very own Todd Akin moment. A challenge has been issued to Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to give some meaning to the status they will be granted in January. It’s not a time for excuses or for whining about opposition or epithets from the other side, just a time to answer the question “what would you do if you were in charge?” because they are. If they don’t like the outline offered by Rep. Ed Royce there is nothing stopping them from coming up with one of their own. The alternative? They could join the president in kicking the can down the road.