They say politicians, like generals, tend to fight the last war. In the Constitutional showdown over President Obama’s executive orders on immigration and threatened government shutdown, Republicans are poised to lose an important fight they can and should win. They lack confidence because they suffer PTSD from the last battle.
It’s quite a turnaround from Obama’s historic drubbing in the midterms a few weeks ago. Suddenly, he seems smug and purposeful while Republicans are fearful of missteps in a minefield.Republicans and many legal scholars believe Obama undermined the constitutional order with unknown consequences. At worst, he’s ignited an arms race between Republican and Democratic presidents to rely on “prosecutorial discretion” to erase laws they don’t like.
Republicans need to show their base and all America they will oppose lawless overreach; they need to avoid sounding mean spirited toward Latinos and worsening that growing electoral gap; and GOP leaders appear terrified of being accused of shutting down the government.
On the last point, establishment wisdom seems to be a shutdown is a shutdown is always radioactive; Republicans would be fools. It will play badly with a hostile media; they’ll get blamed and public opinion will punish them. The proof of all this is the Great Shutdown Battle of 2013 when Obama and the press teamed to paint the GOP as a mix between spoiled brats and barbarians assaulting civilization.
Newsflash to GOP leaders: This war is not that war. The GOP position in 2013 was weak and implausible. The party’s position today is strong and eminently justifiable. The difference is President Obama’s reduced standing with Americans, the flimsy and lawless character of his action, and the fact voters just hired Republicans to check the president’s overreach.
Context matters. But our deep thinkers are outbidding Jonathon Gruber in disrespecting voters’ intelligence. Gruber gloated only that Americans can’t decipher a deliberately deceptive 2,000 page bill. The Mitch McConnells of the world seem to think voters are blind to the changed landscape in front of their face and their own will in changing it.
When Ted Cruz and House Republicans took aim at Obamacare in 2013, Obama was just decisively reelected and relatively popular. Republicans controlled only the House. With no chance of a voting bloc to repeal the law and a certain veto waiting at the president’s desk, the House denied funding for a duly enacted law that had been litigated and declared constitutional. It looked like a stunt with no logical endgame, or perhaps a tantrum by outvoted conservatives to appease their base.
It was natural for the public to justify Obama’s rejection of the House budget. He didn’t even have to veto it; due to the House-Senate split there was no budget. The deadline passed; enter the shutdown.
Americans believed the House gambit was not the way this game should be played. The shutdown played badly for Republicans. Importantly, though, it didn’t inflict the lasting damage many feared. Just about a year later Republicans won a massive wave over a repudiated Obama.
Over the course of that year, Obama had lost tremendous altitude and even more credibility. Obamacare was sold on lies, the biggest ones coming from him. Scandals proliferated. The stench of overreach and incompetence wafted all around the administration. Voters didn’t fall in love with Republicans, but they clearly got sick of Democrats and hired a new team to check the old team.
Defying his clear public rebuke, Obama announced he’d continue pretty much his same agenda, including a sweeping immigration amnesty. But he was against it before he was for it. He appeared on tape some 22 times saying it’s illegal and he lacks the authority to do what he just did. Everyone knows it’s Obama who is playing a card from the bottom of the deck and trying to change the rules of the game for political reasons. His action is constitutionally flawed and unpopular.
Congress should face its duty with a clear message: We regret the president’s brinksmanship has brought America to this point. But we have a responsibility to uphold the Constitution and to pass a responsible budget that supports critical government services. This budget does that while it denies funding to implement the president’s unconstitutional power grab to erase most our immigration law. We hope very much that the president does not veto this bill. That would shut down the government and deepen the Constitutional crisis he created. If he does, it is his decision—his alone—to protect his power grab at the expense of the American people. He owns the decision to keep government operating or to shut it down.
Americans thought Republicans were wrong in 2013. This is a different debate over different things. If Republicans act with courage, clarity, and resolve in 2014, Americans’ judgment will be different.