Ten years ago, following President George Bush’s 2004 re-election victory, Progressives were back on their heels. Bush decided to press his advantage by launching a campaign to privatize Social Security, seeking to eliminate the crown jewel of the New Deal: guaranteed Social Security benefits.
Progressives rallied in an unprecedented campaign to defeat privatization that stopped Bush’s offensive cold. The battle over Social Security privatization turned the political tide. It began a progressive counter offensive that ultimately led to the Democratic takeover of the House in 2006 and the presidency in 2008.
The campaign Republicans have launched to undo President Obama’s executive order on immigration may have the same mid- and long-term effect on the prospects of the Republican Party. Here are seven reasons why:
Reason #1: Most importantly, President Obama’s action is sound policy – that resonates with ordinary Americans once they understand what it actually does.
If you just ask voters whether the President should take executive action to help fix the nation’s broken immigration system, a plurality have reservations. But when they find out what it does, they are very supportive.
On Friday, Hart Research published a poll commissioned by Americans United for Change. Voters were read the following accurate description of the President’s Executive Action:
The action would direct immigration enforcement officials to focus on threats to national security and public safety, and not on deporting otherwise law-abiding immigrants. Immigrants who are parents of children who are legal US residents could qualify to stay and work temporarily in the United States, without being deported, if they have lived in the United States for at least five years, pay taxes, and pass a criminal background check.
A memo by Hart Associates Geoff Garin and Guy Molyneaux summarizes the results.
Voters respond favorably by an overwhelming 39-point margin to executive action by President Obama that would focus immigration enforcement efforts on threats to national security and public safety while allowing some illegal immigrants to stay and work in the United States (67% favorable, 28% unfavorable).
Support is broad, incorporating a majority of voters in every region of the country, among both men and women, and in states won by both Barack Obama (67% favorable) and Mitt Romney (65% favorable). Younger voters under age 35 express particularly strong support (72%), but more than 60% feel favorable in every age cohort.
Executive action receives support from 91% of Democrats and 67% of political independents. While a narrow 51% majority of Republicans oppose executive action (41% favor), this is driven mainly by a 34-point margin of opposition among Tea Party Republicans (30% favor, 64% oppose). Among non-Tea Party Republicans opinion is more divided, with 47% in favor and 45% opposed.
Republicans have hitched their major attack on Executive Action to the notion that the action is illegal – that the President has exceeded his constitutional authority. But the fact is that 11 presidents have taken similar actions with respect to immigration policy -- using the prosecutorial discretion granted by the law -- 39 times over 60 years.
Republican George H.W. Bush took a similar action affecting 1.5 million people – without a peep from some of the same Republicans who today charge the President Obama has declared himself “emperor.”
Bottom line: the more voters know about the President’s Executive Action, the more they like it.
Reason #2: There is very little the Republicans can do to stop the President’s Executive Action without resorting to extreme measures that will alienate massive numbers of voters.
Administration lawyers believe that – given the long list of precedents for exactly this kind of Executive Action -- their position is legally air tight. The President’s two criteria for action appear to have been first, to do as much as possible to fix the broken immigration system using the limited power that he possesses under the law and second, to assure that the action is legally unassailable.
Most of the provisions of these Executive Actions are funded by the Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) of the Department of Homeland Security that is entirely financed through fees. That means Republican appropriators can’t cut off funding, though they could insert riders to legislative language seeking to ban the use of these fees to execute this policy. In this case the President would be forced to veto the legislation and – if the Republicans persist as they did last year trying to insert similar language about the Affordable Health Care Act -- that would lead them into the box canyon of government shutdown-- the last place the GOP leadership wants to go, since it was a political disaster last time.
Reason #3: A battle to stop Executive Action will stain the Republican brand with Hispanic and Asian American voters for a generation.
By the next election in 2016, only two groups will feel strongly about the President’s action on immigration – Tea Party conservatives who represent a small minority of Americans and who all vote Republican no matter what – and recent immigrants, especially Hispanics and Asians.
If the Republicans choose to go to war over these Executive Actions, Hispanics, Asians and other recent immigrants won’t hear Republican claims about “executive overreach.” The message they will hear is simple: Republican don’t care about Hispanics, Asians and other recent immigrants. In fact, they will hear that many Republican fire-brands positively dislike Hispanics, Asians and other immigrant voters.
Republicans can talk until they are blue in the face about tax policy and “small government.” None of that will matter if Hispanic and Asian voters feel that Republicans simply aren’t on their side – that they are disrespected, disliked and shutout by the GOP.
Immigration is not just another policy issue. It’s a matter of identity -- it’s a matter of respect and meaning. It’s about whether or not the Republican Party believes that Hispanics and Asians matter as fellow Americans.
By going to war to stop the president’s Executive Action on immigration, the GOP will set in concrete the kind of political realignment among Hispanic and Asian American voters that they experienced with African American voters as a result of their opposition to civil rights. Hispanics and Asians will be lost to the GOP for a generation.
The magnitude of this loss could be stunning, since Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the population and Asian Americans are not far behind.
Republicans might be able to win some solid Red states without Hispanic and Asian American voters. But they can’t win a Presidential contest without a respectable share of the Hispanic and Asian American vote. And given the Senate seats that are up for grabs in the next cycle – and presidential year turnouts – it will be very difficult for them to maintain control of the Senate, and maybe even the House, without Hispanic and Asian American votes.
Reason #4: People fight much harder to prevent others from taking away what they have, than they do to achieve things to which they aspire.
Once voters have Social Security and Medicare coverage, once families have health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, it’s much harder to change those programs to take those benefits away. When people have an actual stake in something – when you have to rip it from their hands – they fight like crazy to protect it.
To rescind the President’s executive action, Republicans must now propose taking away the deferred action he has granted. Immigrants – and their relatives who vote -- will put up a hell of a fight.
Reason #5: The battle over the President’s executive action will empower the most extreme, anti-immigrant Tea Party elements of the GOP. People like Senator Ted Cruz will use it to build his base and reputation as an uncompromising champion of far right-wing extremism – pandering to the opposition among Tea Partiers that was reflected in the Hart Research poll numbers.
The Republican leadership didn’t want to shut down the government any more in 2013 than it does this year, but their caucuses were highjacked by the Tea Party zealots who led them into a horribly unpopular, losing government shutdown in their crusade to stop the Affordable Care Act.
That could easily happen in 2014 – or early in 2015.
And the impact on the Republican presidential field could also be significant. Anti-immigrant Representative Steve King has already demanded that all of the aspiring GOP presidential candidates attend his Iowa event in January to pledge that they would rescind the President’s order. That will push the GOP field further and further to the right – just as candidate pledges during the primaries to veto the Dream Act alienated a record number of Hispanic voters in 2012.
And it’s not just Hispanics and Asians who are alienated by virulent anti-immigrant talk. Many independent women voters and young people simply don’t understand and don’t want to be associated with hateful statements like those of Steve King and Tim Huelskamp.
Reason #6: Immigration is a wedge issue in the Republican Party. The more the battle over Executive Action drives the party’s agenda, the less unified the Republican Party will be.
The battle over the President’s immigration action may at first appear to unite Republicans because they all have to stand up and salute the Tea Party’s demand that it be stopped. But behind the scenes, it is deeply divisive within the Republican Party.
The corporate, big-business wing of the party supports comprehensive immigration reform of the sort that passed the Senate with 68 votes. They also understand the electoral math when it comes to Hispanic and Asian voters.
The Wall Street crowd doesn’t think it bought control of the Senate so Republican power can be squandered appeasing a bunch of Tea Party activists who don’t like Hispanics. They want tax breaks, and trade bills, and deregulation that will make them money.
Reason #7: Politically, the best thing the GOP could do in the next year is to demonstrate that it is capable of governing by passing legislation that could actually be signed into law.
The rift between business Republicans and the Tea Party made that hard to start with. But the reaction to the president’s executive action in the Tea Party faction may make it impossible.
And the President’s action will put enormous new pressure on House Speaker Boehner to take action on immigration itself. For over 500 days, Boehner has refused to allow an up or down vote on the bi-partisan Senate bill that passed with the support of over two-thirds – including conservative stalwarts like John McCain and Marco Rubio.
Had he called the vote, it would have passed with the support of a small group of Republicans and virtually every Democrat. But that would have enraged the Tea Party wing of his caucus, which is about to grow as a result of this fall’s election.
The GOP’s failure to show that it can govern will be a huge problem for the GOP in 2016. When it comes to immigration the best thing they could do for their brand would be to allow a vote on the Senate bill during the lame duck session. The vote would succeed, the President would sign it, the Executive Action would no longer be relevant, they would get some credit with Hispanics, Asians and moderate women, and this massive political problem would be behind them.
But there are very low odds the GOP leadership in the House will take this common sense step, since it is not in “Speaker” Ted Cruz’s interest to allow it to do so. Cruz has a major base among Tea Party House Members and when it comes to immigration, the Tea Party faction has called the shots.
While the Republicans are scrambling to figure out their next steps and keep their forces together, the President and Democrats are taking victory laps with cheering crowds of recent immigrants who are mobilizing to stand up and defend Executive Action.
Bad week for the GOP.
You can follow Robert Creamer on Twitter @rbcreamer.