The Republicans' Immigration Trap

Central American immigrants turn themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents in McAllen, Texas Photograph by John Moore/Getty Images

Greg Sargent has pointed out in the Washington Post that despite all the criticism directed at Obama for punting on executive action to reform immigration laws, the delay could be politically advantageous for Democrats. That’s because Obama would presumably act after the midterm elections, just as the 2016 Republican presidential jockeying takes off in earnest. As I argued yesterday, this would put Republican candidates in a box—either they’d have to swallow Obama’s “amnesty” and endure the wrath of primary voters or they’d have to advocate overturning it, which would entail stripping legal protection from millions of immigrants and exposing them to deportation.

Sargent is good at describing what this would entail in practice and why it should worry Republicans:

Democrats have an interest in seeing this happen just before the GOP presidential primary, because it makes it more likely the GOP candidates will out-demagogue one another in calling for Obama’s protections from deportation for millions to be rolled back, pulling the GOP field to the right of Mitt Romney’s “self deportation” stance in 2012. Beyond the debate over the propriety of executive action, Republicans continue to deepen their opposition to the enforcement priorities underlying Obama’s coming action—they have boxed themselves into a place where they are inescapably calling for enforcement resources to be directed back towards maximizing the deportation of low-level offenders with longtime ties to communities.

In other words, Republicans would find themselves right back where they were during the 2012 primaries, when Mitt Romney was advocating “self-deportation” en route to a decisive loss.

This could set off a rash of what I’d call “Huntsman self-disqualifications” that could submarine Republicans’ chances at recapturing the White House. In 2012, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman entered the GOP presidential primary as an ostentatiously moderate alternative to what he suggested was a field of right-wing lunatics. Pressure to conform to the desires of the conservative base quickly made him indistinguishable from his competitors—undermining the rationale for his candidacy and basically disqualifying him. Here, for example, is the famous debate clip of Huntsman vowing (along with everyone else) to refuse a hypothetical, absurdly GOP-friendly deficit-cutting plan with a 10-to-1 ration of budget cuts to tax increases:

This instantly destroyed the idea that a moderate candidate could go against the tide, and Huntsman later said he deeply regretted it. It’s impossible to imagine the 2016 Republican field making it through the primary without being confronted with the question of how the candidates would address Obama’s action on immigration. And it’s hard to imagine any of them working up the gumption Huntsman failed to find and breaking with the party’s base by calling for Obama’s executive order to stand.

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