Damn the Torpedoes

Back in 2010, when the GOP took the House, a conciliatory Barack Obama seemed eager to acknowledge that, for the time being at least, his party would have to eat some humble pie. He struck a deal with Republicans during the lame-duck session that extended the Bush tax cuts for two years and when progressives railed against him, he proceeded to throw them under the bus.

At the time, Obama's moves seemed well reasoned and logical. Republicans were threatening a government shutdown and the deal, on the whole, wasn't as lopsided as the Democratic base was claiming. The reality was that Republicans, like it or not, had one half of the legislative branch and Obama wanted to prove to them he was willing to work with them. With a presidential election two years away, Obama's move was practically Clintonesque. Certainly the GOP would reward his largesse.

Well, as we saw all too clearly, Obama's olive branch was shoved back in his face. The following summer, the Tea Party-led Republican House threatened not only another government shutdown but a debt-ceiling default. The deal that emerged from that showdown brought us the Sequester. So much for being the adult in the room. So much for our better angels.

Fast forward four years and Obama is faced with an even bigger setback. The GOP not only padded their majority in the House, they took the Senate, as well. How would the President react to this reality. Would he go middle of the road, like he did in 2010, and extend his hand again, or would he try another approach? Based on what we heard Wednesday, I'm going with the latter.

Yes, he was gracious and, as usual, calm and collected. He congratulated Republicans on their victory and welcomed the opportunity to work with them when the new Congress is sworn in. And then he did something nobody expected. He threatened that if Republicans didn't pass immigration reform, he would do what he promised to do months ago: go executive order on their ass.

“Before the end of the year I will take whatever lawful action I can take. At the same time, I will be reaching out to John Boehner and Mitch McConnell and other leaders to get a bill done in the lame duck or next year. What I’m not going to do is just wait. I think it’s fair to say I’ve shown a lot of patience.”

For those of you who are tennis fans, Obama served up the political equivalent of an ace. He presented the GOP with an ultimatum: do your job or I'll do mine. Suffice to say, the Speaker of the House and the soon to be Majority Leader of the Senate were less than thrilled. Boehner had some choice words for the President.

"I've made it clear to the president that if he acts unilaterally - on his own, outside of his authority - he will poison the well, and there will be no chance for immigration reform moving in this Congress. It's as simple as that."

You hear that Obama? If you don't do what we say, you'll never see an immigration bill on your desk. If you sign an executive order, we won't cooperate with you on other issues. We've seen this movie before, haven't we? Concede to our demands and we won't default on the debt; let us gut your healthcare law and we'll reopen the government. It's the same thing over and over. We have a gun to your head, please don't force us to pull the trigger. It wasn't surprising that Boehner would play that tired, old hand again. What was surprising was how many political pundits fell for it, including Andrew Sullivan, who wrote:

The threat makes sense as a way to bring the GOP to the table, but not if he fully intends to follow through before the end of the year regardless. Instead of forcing the GOP to come up with a compromise bill – which if it can, great, and if it cannot, will split the GOP in two – he’d merely recast the debate around whether he is a “lawless dictator”, etc etc. rather than whether it is humane or rational to keep millions of people in illegal limbo indefinitely. It would strengthen those dead-ender factions in the House that are looking for an excuse to impeach. It would unify the GOP on an issue where it is, in fact, deeply divided. And it would not guarantee a real or durable solution to the clusterfuck.

As much as I admire Sullivan, he couldn't be more wrong. For one thing this idea that some cling to that the GOP would split into two factions is utter nonsense. It is predicated on the notion that somehow establishment Republicans and Tea Party Republicans are inherently different. So far as I can tell, the only discernible difference between the two is that one is more calculating and the other is just plain nuts. Make no mistake about it, Mitch McConnell has more in common with Ted Cruz than you think. For the last six years, the GOP has been completely unified and implacable. Their hatred for this president is unprecedented and nothing he does or says will change that.

Secondly, as to Sullivan's concern about how using his executive powers could recast the debate around Obama being a lawless dictator, I'm afraid that ship sailed quite some time ago. Frankly, I'm surprised at Sullivan's naïveté. Obama's opponents have always thought of him as a lawless dictator. Hell, some of them still think he's a Kenyan. The Tea Party doesn't need an excuse to impeach him. They've already sued him for delaying a provision in the same healthcare law they've tried more than 50 times to repeal.

Memo to Mr. Sullivan and all the other wonks out there. There was never going to be an immigration bill for Obama to sign, whether he obeyed the GOP or not. And there never will be. The Republican base will never permit one to pass the House. And even if it did by some miracle get through, Ted Cruz and Joni Ernst - the new rising star of the Tea Party - would block it. And the idea that if Obama played ball, the Republicans would be reasonable is laughable. If the last six years are any indication, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for Boehner and McConnell to lift so much as a finger to achieve anything meaningful. In fact, I give it about a week or two into the new session before Ron Johnson starts issuing subpoenas on Benghazi, the I.R.S., Fast and Furious, the tidal currents, the Kennedy Assassination. Who's kidding who, here?

Let's face it, Obama's throw down had nothing to do with House and Senate Republicans. It had everything to do with letting the base know and, more importantly, those millions of Hispanic immigrants who sit in limbo and the millions more who are here legally who have borne the brunt of GOP derision but don't believe that the President respects them enough, that he means business. This wasn't about 2014, it was about 2016. Listen to his words:

"To everyone who voted, I want you to know that I hear you. To the two thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you too."

Translation? My party and I disowned you and you punished us. I won't make that mistake again. Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but hopefully Obama has learned a valuable lesson. In retrospect, it was a mistake for him to delay executive action on immigration.  Not only didn't it help Democrats in the midterms, it gave a worried Republican leadership the time it needed to quell the loose cannons within their ranks who wanted to proceed with impeachment proceedings.

Only an incurable optimist believes anything substantive will happen in the next Congress. Already McConnell is hinting he will tie the next continuing resolution to certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The GOP strategy has changed. They know they can't repeal the law outright, so they'll just pick away at it until there's nothing left. A reasonable and pragmatic Obama will only legitimize their scam.

The simple fact is that while certain parts of the country are very conservative, most of it is far more moderate and, in some cases, left of center. The irony is that while Republicans cleaned up at the ballot box Tuesday, all throughout the country, liberal initiatives were making strides. Nebraska, one of the most conservative states in the country, voted to raise its minimum wage. Arkansas, another conservative state - and home to now former Democratic Senator Mark Pryor - did the same. The majority of the country is pro gay rights, pro gun regulation and favors immigration reform.

On the issues that matter most to Americans, Democrats were simply missing in action and the electorate made them pay dearly for it. If they continue playing Republican Light, they run the risk of losing the Executive branch in 2016. The Party needs to define a message that will stir the millions on the Left who sat out this election without alienating the all-essential Center. Yes, I realize that by default more Democratic voters will turnout in two years. That's usually what happens in presidential elections. But it would be the height of arrogance to presume that ALL of them will turnout or that they will all vote along party lines.

In about two months or so, Hillary Clinton will announce she is running for president. In all likelihood, she will be joined shortly thereafter by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, as well as Vice President Joe Biden. It wouldn't surprise me if someone like a Julian Castro threw his hat in the ring, too. Together, they will stand in stark contrast to the litany of clowns the GOP will put on display. But only if they differentiate themselves from them.

I think Obama finally understands what's at stake. The politics of playing it safe don't work with this mob. They view it as weakness. That's why I think he's going to spend the next two years pissing off as many Republicans as he possibly can, while at same time giving his base the biggest woody it can possibly imagine. He's not giving up, he's preparing the baton. If the House and Senate threaten to impeach him for using his executive power, Obama should just borrow a line from Clint Eastwood: "Go ahead, make my day." In typical fashion, their overreach will come back to haunt them. It always has.

Think about it. For the first two years of his presidency, Obama's biggest accomplishment was preventing the Republican Party from utterly destroying the country. His last two years will likely be spent making sure they don't get another crack at it.


Prof. Walter Jameson said…


Andrew Sullivan happens to be spot-on correct. The president has asked the Republicans (McConnell and Boehner) to come up with legislation on immigration reform. So, what is he going to do now, just ignore that very public entreaty he made and go ahead with Executive amnesty before the Republicans even take office? The president knows that he has to bring the Republicans on board with this particular issue, especially since they'll be in control of the legislative branch come January. If they can't cobble something together, say, because their reactionary wing won't allow it, then the Republican party will, effectively, be split on this issue -- and with a big public spotlight shining right on them. President Obama wins this one hands down simply by appearing reasonable.

If, however, he just proceeds with the widely unpopular, unconditional Executive amnesty, he will have committed one of the dumbest moves of his entire presidency. Unconditional amnesty is supported only by a relatively small group on opposite sides of the political spectrum: radical left-wingers and the extremely wealthy, looking to legitimate their exploited workers. Among mainstream Democrats and Republicans, it has very little support. There would be nothing, at this juncture, more unifying to the Republican party than this particular action ... if it were to be taken. It would even bring Independents over to the Republican side.

As it stands right now, Messieurs McConnell and Boehner know that they've got to get something done on this. It's in their, and their party's, interest. Why in the world would the president want to do anything that would upset this full-court press?

That's what Mr. Sullivan was getting at.

Thank you for the opportunity to respond.