WASHINGTON – Stay wide awake in the coming weeks. This is a historic moment when all of the divisions, misunderstandings and hatreds of President Barack Obama’s time in office have come to a head. We are in a different place than we were. We are also in a place we were bound to get to eventually.
Obama’s decision to back away from our government’s policy of ripping apart the families of undocumented immigrants has called forth utterly contradictory responses from Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives. It should now be clear that the two sides don’t see the facts, the law or history in the same way.
Conservatives say the president’s executive actions on immigration are uniquely “lawless” and provocative. Progressives insist that Obama is acting in the same way that President Reagan and both Presidents Bush did. They recall that after the second President Bush’s immigration reform bill failed in the Senate in 2007 – it was very similar to the 2013 bill Obama supports – White House spokesperson Dana Perino declared flatly of the administration’s willingness to use its executive powers: “We’re going as far as we possibly can without Congress acting.”
Yet perhaps facts are now irrelevant. There was an enlightening moment of candor when Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., visited MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on the morning of Obama’s immigration speech. “The president ought to walk into this a lot more slowly, especially after an election,” Coburn said. “This idea, the rule of law, is really concerning a lot of people where I come from. And whether it’s factual or perceptual, it really doesn’t matter.”
Yes, for many of the president’s foes, the distinction between the “factual” and the “perceptual” doesn’t matter anymore.
But mainstream Republicans seem as angry at Obama as the tea partyers. They argue repeatedly that by moving on his own, Obama has made it impossible for Congress to act.
You’d think that Republicans who genuinely support immigration reform would want to prove the president wrong in a different way: by passing a comprehensive bill. That only a few of them are saying this is an obvious sign to the president’s supporters that Obama is right in suspecting that the House GOP would continue to bob and weave to avoid the issue – as they did for the one year, four months and 24 days between the passage of the genuinely bipartisan immigration reform bill in the Senate and Obama’s announcement.
In a superb reconstruction of why the president decided to move on his own, Washington Post reporters Juliet Eilperin, Ed O’Keefe and David Nakamura note that the last straw for Obama was House Speaker John Boehner’s refusal to say after the election that he would bring up an immigration bill if the president agreed to postpone executive action. In the absence of concrete pledges that something would get done, there was no point in waiting any longer.
All this explains the jubilation among progressives. They not only agree with the substance of what Obama did but also see him as finally calling the bluff of his opponents. He has forced the contradictions of the Republican establishmentarians into the sunlight.
Such Republicans were counting on Obama to be an enabler. He’d once more accept their quiet (and now obviously hollow) promises of good will and thus allow them to avoid a straight up confrontation with the right wing of their party.
Now, they can no longer have it both ways. Many of them claim they agree with the substance of what Obama did and also that Congress should pass a broader immigration bill. If this is true, then why should they spend all their energy trying to undo the constructive steps he has just taken? If they punt and simply join in the rancid attacks on Obama as an “emperor” and a “monarch,” they will demonstrate for all to see that the GOP really is dominated by its right wing and that those of more measured views are simply too timid to take on their internal adversaries.
No wonder they’re so angry with the president.
For the six years since Obama’s election, the Republican right has been on offense, continually blurring those distinctions between the “factual” and the “perceptual.” They keep charging that Obama is a dangerous radical even when he pursues middle-of-the-road policies. Their supposedly more temperate colleagues go along because they don’t have to pay a price.
Obama has just told them their free ride is over. The stakes in American politics will be much clearer because he did.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.