A strange sort of assumption has taken root inside the Beltway, which is likely to be quite consequential in the coming weeks. The assumption is odd, but simple: President Obama using executive-branch powers on immigration would make Republicans really angry, ergo, President Obama should not use his executive-branch powers on immigration.
The result of this line of thought is a shift in responsibilities: if GOP lawmakers flip out, shut down the government, refuse to govern, and ponder impeachment, this will be entirely the president's fault. After all, the argument goes, Obama knew governing would make Republicans angry, but he chose to govern anyway.
David Brooks endorsed the thesis in a column
today, insisting the president "has been superaggressive on the one topic sure to blow everything up."
I sympathize with what Obama is trying to do substantively, but the process of how it's being done is ruinous. Republicans would rightly take it as a calculated insult and yet more political ineptitude. Everybody would go into warfare mode. We'll get two more years of dysfunction that will further arouse public disgust and antigovernment fervor (making a Republican presidency more likely).
Let me get this straight. There's a policy problem. Congressional Republicans have chosen to ignore the problem. Obama has the legal authority to address the problem without Congress, just as many of his predecessors have done. But the president should let the problem fester anyway, Brooks tells us, because Republicans would see governing solutions as an "insult."
Is this how a superpower governs in the 21st century? Federal policymaking crawls to a halt because a radicalized party had its feelings hurt by the big bad president? The one who's a meanie for having the audacity to see a problem and try to fix it while a do-nothing Congress gives itself another vacation, sees its productivity drop to unprecedented levels, and prioritizes stunts over problem-solving?
"Republicans would rightly take it as a calculated insult"? Here's a crazy thought: grown-ups in positions of power and authority shouldn't fall to pieces so easily. Republicans have spent six years trying to destroy the Obama presidency. They remain committed to sabotaging every major White House initiative. They've voted to repeal Obama's signature domestic policy initiative several dozen times for no particular reason other than partisan posturing. They shut down the government and quite literally threatened to crash the global economy, on purpose, unless their demands were met in the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis.
And yet, President Obama didn't see any of this as a "calculated insult" and he remains eager to work with the wild-eyed partisans who've rebuffed every attempt at governing.
So why is David Brooks complaining so bitterly about the president's behavior?
The move would further destabilize the legitimacy of government. Redefining the legal status of five million or six million human beings is a big deal. This is the sort of change we have a legislative process for. To do something this seismic with the stroke of one man's pen is dangerous. Instead of a nation of laws, we could slowly devolve into a nation of diktats, with each president relying on and revoking different measures on the basis of unilateral power -- creating unstable swings from one presidency to the next. If President Obama enacts this order on the transparently flimsy basis of "prosecutorial discretion," he's inviting future presidents to use similarly flimsy criteria. Talk about defining constitutional deviancy down.
This move would also make it much less likely that we'll have immigration reform anytime soon. White House officials are often misinformed on what Republicans are privately discussing, so they don't understand that many in the Republican Party are trying to find a way to get immigration reform out of the way. This executive order would destroy their efforts.
Why? If they don't like the executive order -- if there is an executive order -- Republicans can make it go away by actually trying to pass legislation for a change. After previous presidents took executive action, previous Congresses didn't throw a tantrum; they passed bills. Why give GOP lawmakers a pre-emptive pass on inaction?
I wonder if, post-presidency, Mr. Obama will look back and regret that he got sucked into the very emotional maelstrom he set out to destroy.
And I wonder if, sometime today, Mr. Books will re-read his column and regret that he fell so completely for absurd Republican talking points.