Can You Trust the President on Immigration?

Republicans claim they don't trust Obama on immigration. They didn't trust Bush either. 

So I'm not exactly convinced by the recent Republican talking point that they're not able to pass immigration reform because they don't trust President Barack Obama to enforce the law. For a thorough rundown on what is actually going on with House Republicans and immigration, see Greg Sargent's excellent summary this morning. It's all about whether Republican leaders want immigration reform enough that they're willing to go against those in the party who oppose it.

It must be a close call, since the party keeps shifting back and forth between being about to pass their version of immigration reform (which, remember, we haven't actually seen yet) and declaring it dead. How will it come out? I have no idea.

Part of the problem is that House Republicans desperately want to be perceived by their constituents (or at least those voting in primary elections) as True Conservatives, but there's no authoritative voice declaring which positions count as the correct ones.

Which gets to something that liberal tweeter @LOLGOP said today, presumably intending sarcasm: "So are Republicans saying they killed immigration reform in 2007 because they couldn't trust George W. Bush?"

To which I would reply: Yeah, that's about right. By 2007, Republican elites, both elected and in Republican-aligned groups, really didn't trust Bush much. I suspect their lack of trust went back to Iraq, although few Republicans were willing to say so publicly. But if Bush hadn't lost the trust of House and Senate Republicans by the time Iraq began to look like a quagmire, he certainly did by the time he nominated Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court in October, 2005. Indeed, her nomination was almost certainly a breaking point for many conservatives, and the demise of her nomination was a sign that conservative Republicans had lost faith in Bush.

For Bush, it was quite a turnaround. Just as 2008 endorsements from Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards had convinced Democrats that a health care reform based on private insurance was sufficiently "liberal," Bush, in his first year in office, similarly successfully vouched for the conservative bone fides of No Child Left Behind. By 2007, however, Bush had lost his influence with conservatives.

Which makes an important point about the presidency: The president's reputation really can matter among elites. As Richard Neustadt explained long ago, those who must deal with the president watch him closely, and constantly revise what they think about him on several dimensions. They observe not just whether he's a winner or a loser, but what his bargaining style is, how he treats those who defeat him or are defeated by him, and, yes, whether his claims are to be trusted.

Now, it's possible to take this too far -- a president's abilities are still very limited, and members of Congress and party actors outside Congress are independent actors. Perhaps immigration reform would have been doomed in 2007 regardless of Bush's reputation. But it certainly couldn't have helped him.

Getting back to the current president and immigration reform, what House Republicans think of Obama is, as Greg says, irrelevant to what they'll do on immigration. He's not their problem with this bill. Their problem is that they have both strong incentives to oppose (the threat of anti-immigration opposition in future primary elections) and strong incentives to support (the party's interest in competing for the Hispanic vote, along with pressure from those Republican-aligned groups who want a bill to pass for economic reasons).

Actually, I'm not sure most Republicans in Congress do lack trust in Obama. Oppose him? Absolutely. Dislike him? I wouldn't be surprised. But I'm not sure I see evidence that they think his word is worthless. At any rate, no one is asking Republicans to trust Obama. For now, they find it convenient to blame him for their opposition to immigration reform. Whether that will be enough to convince Hispanic voters, however, is a whole different story.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    (Jonathan Bernstein covers U.S. politics for Bloomberg View. He is co-editor of "The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012." Follow him on Twitter at @JBPlainblog.)

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