Should Obama Have Acted on Immigration Before the Midterms?
Dana Milbank ("Obama's big immigration mistake") thinks so.
Dana Milbank (“Obama’s big immigration mistake“) thinks so:
Back in July, when President Obama was deciding whether to take executive action on immigration before the midterm elections, I got into one of those cable-news debates that offer the president unsolicited advice from the unqualified.
I argued that the move would boost Hispanic turnout and rally a depressed Democratic base. Yes, it might hurt some vulnerable Democratic candidates, but it would cement Hispanic loyalty to the party in the long run: “It’s a question of, whose interest is he looking out for?”
The president declined to act on immigration before the election. But all the Democratic Senate incumbents in red states that he was trying to protect lost anyway on Tuesday. There’s evidence that the combination of low Hispanic turnout and lower Hispanic margins for Democrats doomed some Democratic candidates, including Charlie Crist, who lost his gubernatorial race in Florida, and perhaps Sen. Mark Udall, who lost his reelection bid in Colorado.
Worse, the fading ardor Latinos showed for Democrats raises the possibility that this reliable constituency – crucial to the party’s prospects in 2016 and beyond — is slipping away. Now Obama, to avoid even more trouble with Latinos, has vowed to take unilateral action on immigration by year end, even though GOP leaders say that will “poison the well” with the congressional majority. As the NBC News political team speculated: “Given the current situation, we think the White House wishes it went ahead and issued that executive action back in the summer.”
There is a lesson here that goes beyond immigration: Obama would have been better off if he had done what he thought was right and let the politics take care of themselves. When Halperin, co-author of the bestseller “Game Change,” and Democrat strategists called for postponing executive action, they were looking at politics as a game, moving pieces to maximize numbers after the next election. But politics is not just always a game of winning the next election. It’s about doing, as Obama belatedly remembered on Wednesday, “what I think is best for the country.”
Instead, his political calculation turned out to be too clever by half, and he wound up setting back a worthy cause without helping Democrats at the polls. “You repress the vote in the Latino community and what did you come up with?” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) asked rhetorically during a news conference in Chicago Wednesday, according to an account in Politico. He called the loss an “indication about what happens when you try to toy with your principles and your beliefs.”
In terms of the political calculus, it’s really unfair to Monday morning quarterback. Given that Democrats had close to their worst case scenario, it’s easy to look back and say that may as well have gambled on the long term. Obama and his advisors were trying to avoid the worst case, however, and thought they were doing so.
More importantly to me, however, is that Milbank elides the distinction between his preferred public policy outcome and the right thing to do. Immigration policy should be made by Congress, not executive fiat. That Congress is a giant pain in the ass to deal with right now is a fact of life. It does not, however, justify overturning the checks and balances that are a linchpin of our Republic out of frustration.