Obama Goes Nuclear on Immigration

Until this week, there was still a chance for both parties to work together on immigration. That looks to be over.

No more Mr. Nice Guy.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The charismatic young senator who ran for president promising to end Washington’s hyperpartisanship has failed so badly -- assign blame however you like, and there’s plenty to go around -- that he’s not only given up the quest, he’s doubling down on dysfunction.

Instead of extending an olive branch to the incoming Republican majority in Congress, President Barack Obama is pushing the nuclear button. By issuing executive orders to legalize 5 million immigrants, a move he had repeatedly declared unconstitutional, Obama has dropped a bomb on the Republican Party -- knowing full well that it will retaliate with equal or greater force.


Welcome to Washington’s version of Mutually Assured Destruction. Obama has the power to defeat the Republicans politically, by driving a wedge between them and immigrant communities, and he's using it. Republicans have the power to defeat Obama governmentally, by driving a stake through what remains of his agenda, and they'll use it too. The war between Obama and Republicans -- after fleeting and half-hearted talk of bipartisanship from both camps following the election -- seems set to rage until November 2016. The country will be poorer for it.

It’s easy to understand why Obama pushed the button. House Republicans have refused to address immigration reform, placing harmful burdens on families and companies alike. They declined to act partly because of the nativist streak that runs through the Tea Party, and partly because doing so would have given President Obama and the Democrats a victory, God forbid.

But now that we're past the midterm election, with its older and whiter electorate, and now that Republicans are in a position to take credit for delivering what the Democrats could not, Republican leaders have a significant political incentive to act. Latinos will be a larger share of the 2016 electorate, and Republicans do not want to enter the election season -- which will begin in earnest next spring -- as the party that thinks millions of Latinos and Asians should be deported.

Passing even a modest immigration reform bill through a Republican Congress would be no small feat. It would require House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to accept Tea Party defections. For the good of the party in 2016, it’s a cost they might have been willing to bear. But that cost just grew far larger, and it may be that neither has the political capital to pay it. Both will now have to spend an enormous amount of time and energy placating furious party members, whose appetite for cooperating with Obama (always minute) will become infinitesimal. If you thought you’d seen a do-nothing Congress, just wait until next year.

It didn’t have to be this way. Obama could have used tonight’s speech to outline the options before him if Republicans failed to take action in the new year, offering them an outstretched hand and a good faith promise to work toward a legislative fix to the broken immigration system. It’s not naïve to think that this would have helped Boehner and McConnell -- who are pragmatic deal makers, not ideological firebrands -- convince their members that it was in the party’s interest to negotiate with the president on an issue that, if they don’t clear it out of the way, could hurt the party in 2016.

When Republicans captured control of Congress in 1994, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his Republican disciples spent the next year at war with President Clinton, which ultimately led to a government shutdown. Americans blamed them for overplaying their hand. The following year, the fever broke, and Republicans recognized that they needed to show the public they could govern responsibly. Working with Clinton, they passed major pieces of legislation, including welfare reform, telecommunications deregulation, a minimum wage increase and an anti-terrorism law.

The White House can only hope that Republicans overplay their hand again, forcing them into conciliatory contrition. McConnell and Boehner seem determined to avoid that mistake, but if they hope to show the American people that they can govern, they will have to convince their members to negotiate with a president who -- from their perspective -- is unwilling to negotiate with them.

That’s going to be an awfully tough sell -- and it could make for an awfully long two years.

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    Francis Barry at

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