WASHINGTON – House Speaker John Boehner has said that President Barack Obama would “poison the well” for legislative action on immigration reform by unilaterally issuing executive orders. But how can you poison a well that has already been filled with partisan cyanide?
Obama’s Republican critics say that his forceful approach on immigration, climate change and net neutrality show he isn’t paying attention to what the voters said in the midterm elections.
In truth, he is paying close attention to the feelings of a very important group of voters – the tens of millions who supported him two years ago but were so dispirited that they stayed away from the polls on Nov. 4. They are hoping Obama will show them that political engagement is worth the effort.
Republicans did a brilliant job in the campaign playing on the idea that Obama is weak, passive and without a game plan. That was the not-so-hidden meaning of all their television ads about the Islamic State, Ebola and immigration. So Obama has made clear that he won’t be weak and passive, and that he has a game plan.
On immigration, Boehner has lost all credibility to claim he wants to act in a bipartisan way. In his heart of hearts, might he like to pass a bill? Sure. But the speaker’s heart is not what’s at stake here. A willingness to take heat from the right wing of his caucus to pass a bill is what matters. And this is something he has shown, again and again, that he just won’t do.
On June 27, 2013, by a genuinely bipartisan vote of 68-32, the Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform. Boehner kept sending signals that he wanted to act. So Obama waited. And waited. And waited. And nothing happened.
After an election in which so many Republican candidates took a hard line on immigration, can anyone really believe that the House (or, for that matter, the new Republican Senate) will be eager to act? In the meantime, Obama, having promised executive orders to solve at least part of the problem, held back to try to help incumbent Democratic Senate candidates in red states. A lot of good that did.
By taking action now, Obama could even change the Republican calculus. Instead of burying a bill through countless delays, Republicans will have to respond to concrete decisions that could help actual human beings – perhaps as many as 6 million undocumented immigrants – and also a tech industry that wants visas for the highly skilled.
And the notion that Obama is spoiling a moment of exquisitely nonpartisan opportunity in Washington is laughable. Did anyone notice incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s victory speech on election night when he spoke as if the election weren’t over? “What the current crowd in Washington is offering is making us weaker, both at home and abroad,” he said, adding that Obama and the Democrats regularly “blamed somebody else when their policies didn’t work out.”
The ink was barely dry on Obama’s climate change accord with China when McConnell pronounced himself “particularly distressed” by a deal that he said “requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years,” which rather oversimplifies matters.
McConnell is free to say whatever he wants. But please, let’s not pretend that it is Obama who is poisoning anybody’s well. Ditto for Boehner. He seemed to give comfort to the impeachers he is trying to discourage when he said of executive orders that haven’t even been issued that he was determined to “stop the president from violating his own oath of office and violating the Constitution.”
This, by the way, is the same Boehner who, during the border crisis in July, released a statement with the rest of the House Republican leadership declaring: “There are numerous steps the president can and should be taking right now, without the need for congressional action, to secure our borders …”
The message is that some executive actions are great but others are unconstitutional – and whichever way Obama goes must be wrong.
This year, an estimated 36.3 percent of eligible voters – the lowest turnout since 1942 – gave Republicans their overwhelming victory. Many of the nearly two-thirds of voters who didn’t show up (they happen to be disproportionately young and Latino) had given up on Obama and the Democrats getting anything done.
Yes, Washington may again be engulfed in partisan warfare. But at least this time, it will be over things that are actually happening.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.