President Obama’s immigration speech Thursday was mendacious, self-serving, ahistorical -- and so tendentious that the networks declined to air it. Yet this was also a virtuoso performance by the president, calculated to rescue the Democratic Party from the shoals of destruction where he has steered their ship. It just might work, too, if Republicans aren't careful.
No, the president's executive actions were not reminiscent of another Emancipation Proclamation, a goofy talking point parroted on MSNBC by several of the Democrats' lesser lights on Capitol Hill. But it was a bold political gambit nonetheless. To note, as many did, that the president's prime-time address and a follow-up performance at a Las Vegas high school were campaign-style events was self-evident. But what office is this term-limited, lame-duck president running for? The answer to that question is the key to understanding the president's go-it-alone approach.
Obama decried Washington gridlock while never acknowledging his role in making the problem worse. He lamented the fate of immigrants living "in the shadows” without bothering to consider how his own actions put them there. As for his previous statements regarding the limits of executive power, Obama’s amnesia was so complete it bordered on dementia.
He quoted the Bible to justify acting immediately, before the 114th Congress convenes in six weeks, not even attempting to explain why, if this issue was so fundamental, he didn’t act six months ago, or six years ago when Democrats had working majorities in the House and Senate -- or even earlier, when as Senator Obama he cast the deciding vote against immigration reform. By the president’s logic, the Good Book was written after the 2014 midterm elections.
Republican outrage was predictable. All week, even before they knew the details of the president's plan, Republican threw back in Obama's face his many previous statements about being unable to address the nation's immigration law unilaterally because he wasn't an "emperor" or a "king." Those were his words, not those of Ted Cruz, although the Princeton-educated Texas firebrand certainly had fun on the Senate floor imitating Cicero at Obama's expense.
With a stroke of the pen, Caesar Obama now proposes granting legal status, albeit temporary, to as many as 5 million of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in this country. He'd do it by conferring legal status on the parents of children who are U.S. citizens or legal residents -- providing they have been in the U.S. for at least five years. This goes far beyond the "prosecutorial discretion" argument cited earlier by Democrats: This new status, conveyed for three years at a time, would not only free the undocumented aliens from the threat of deportation; it would also grant them work permits. Obama also says he'll raise to 30 the age at which young people brought to the U.S. as children who can apply for deferrals pursuant to earlier action he initiated.
"It's about who we are as a country, and who we want to be for future generations," the president said at the White House. "Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents' arms, or are we a nation that values families and works together to keep them together?"
Conditioned by years of administration high-handedness and deceit on matters ranging from Obamacare to Benghazi, most Republicans were immune to these stirring words. Instead, they concentrated mostly on the president's decision to bypass Congress. If one listened carefully, they weren't talking about the merits of the president's proposals. But they certainly ought to be thinking about them because they tend to be popular with wide swaths of an electorate that many Republicans still misread.
After their sweeping midterm victories, Republicans are feeling confident again. That's understandable. But what they might want to keep in mind is that the GOP ticket has won a majority or a plurality of the popular vote in exactly one of the last six presidential elections, and that in the last national election their standard-bearer offered "self-deportation" as his answer to the nation's complex immigration mess. Hispanic and Asian voters rewarded Republicans accordingly.
This is not an argument Republicans can win in the long run. Nor should they. For many Americans, the "rule of law" that Republicans keep talking about -- the president invoked it, too -- is subservient to a higher law. That's the one that brought millions of Americans to these shores, many before the United States was a country, and it is bringing them still. This law is very nearly a biological imperative. It's what parents feel when they look into their crib and think that whatever the risks, they owe their baby a chance at a good life.
The very idea that a person brought to the United States as a child, who is educated here, works here, and serves in the military -- or is a janitor, laborer, maid, nurse, or social worker -- should be deported is anathema to most Americans. That is the sense of empathy Obama is tapping into. To be fair, Republicans think he's playing ethnic and racial politics for purely partisan reasons. There is evidence for this view; on Capitol Hill, Obama's former Senate colleagues witnessed it first-hand.
In 2007, the immigration legislation that Obama now says he wants so badly was on the verge of passing when North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan persuaded a majority of his Democratic colleagues to support an amendment designed to derail the carefully crafted compromise between liberals, the Oval Office and a bloc of Senate moderates in both parties. Acting at the behest of organized labor, Dorgan's amendment would have weakened the guest-worker provision of the bill. On Capitol Hill such amendments are called "poison pills" because their true aim is to kill the legislation.
That's what happened on June 6, 2007. The amendment passed 49-48. Pro-reform senators felt betrayed by Obama, who had participated – uninvited -- in a bipartisan meeting of senators trying to pass the bill. "Who is the senator from North Dakota trying to fool?" an angry Ted Kennedy had asked of Dorgan. McCain would ask the same thing about Obama. Kennedy, who ended up supporting Obama for president anyway, was collateral damage. More importantly, so were millions of immigrants Obama now champions. In any event, by the end of the summer of 2007, the fragile coalition in favor of the comprehensive immigration reform had dissipated.
Since that day to this one, Republicans have viewed Obama as a cynical operator who cares more about helping his political party win elections by making divisive appeals to ethnic groups of other voting coalitions than about actually helping immigrants. They never have succeeded in getting Latinos or Asians to see it that way and now it is moot.
Due, in part to his own machinations, the goals of pro-immigrant groups and a Democratic president now dovetail nicely. Obama's executive orders, or whatever they are called, are likely to be in effect when the 2016 presidential campaign begins. Hillary Clinton, who also voted for the Dorgan "poison pill," will almost certainly be on the record as supporting their continuation. Where will the Republicans be? That is the little poison pill the president has left them.