Republicans have an immigration problem, and Democrats may have an answer.
When President Barack Obama, as expected, moves ahead with an executive action on immigration, he could be handing Republicans the out they need on an issue that is expected to plague the GOP in national elections for years.
By acting on his own, politicians and pollsters told CQ Roll Call, Obama may take immediate pressure off Congress to address the nation’s immigration system while also giving Republicans a legitimate reason to bash the overhaul. Republicans — particularly those with 2016 aspirations — can slam the immigration action as an executive overreach.
Congressional Democrats are already playing defense against that line of attack. On Thursday, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi penned an op-ed with Illinois Democrat Luis V. Gutiérrez and California Democrat Zoe Lofgren, arguing that the president's authority to defer removal of illegal immigrants has precedent.
Of course, there are plenty of questions remaining regarding the president’s executive order — who will be included, how the action will impact enforcement and the extent of the deferments. But Democrats and Republicans are already starting to ask the question that's always most important in Washington: How does this affect the next election?
Republicans contend — perhaps a bit hopefully — that unilateral action will backfire on Obama and the Democrats.
Pro-immigration overhaul Republican Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida told CQ Roll Call that, “short-term,” the president might receive a bump from voters. “But, I think, long-term, it’s going to be devastating.”
There are videos, the Miami congressman said, of Obama arguing that he lacks the legal authority to act alone on immigration. And when the public is inundated with those videos, Diaz-Balart predicted, they’ll turn on a unilateral immigration action.
“I think it will personally destroy him,” Diaz-Balart said of Obama. Diaz-Balart also said he had heard there was a possibility the president delays the executive action — now expected before Christmas — until after a couple of possible Senate runoff elections, should the Senate majority hang in the balance with states such as Louisiana or Georgia.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., also thought voters would respond poorly to the president going it alone. “They’ll see it No. 1 as executive overreach,” he said.
But he didn’t think it completely took the pressure off Congress to act. “He may be bailing individual members out,” Cole said, “but he’s not bailing out the Republican Party.”
To Cole, unilateral action would further cement the issue as a dominant topic in the 2016 conversation. “It sets up a bidding contest between the two parties,” he said.
But some GOP pollsters see it in starker terms.
“If the president takes action, he hands the election to the Republicans,” said pollster Kellyanne Conway, the president and CEO of The Polling Company.
Conway said there is little consensus on who's responsible for the immigration mess. Giving voters one person to blame, while also giving Republicans a convincing reason to oppose the action, “would make it that much harder for a Democrat to win the White House in 2016.”
Americans supposedly have this “love affair with change and revolution,” Conway said. But then people come to New York City and go to Times Square, "and they eat at Applebees and Olive Garden and all the other places they eat at when they’re home.”
That's evidence of a very real apprehension about change, Conway said. The president’s action, she added, would look too overtly political, "more craven than compassionate."
Greg Strimple, president of the GS Strategy Group, said there was a real problem with the way Obama wanted to tackle immigration. Most Americans, he said, want an immigration overhaul “sequentially,” securing the border first.
And, despite Thursday's call for action from Pelosi and Co., Democrats would face real challenges, he said, in supporting the executive action.
“I think Hillary Clinton would have a hard time defending it,” Strimple added.
Still, Democrats are not so sure.
Prominent Democratic pollster Celinda Lake thinks voters would respond “just fine” to the president acting alone.
“Voters would be glad to have a president getting something done,” said Lake, president of Lake Research Partners.
She doubts Republicans could avoid looking anti-immigration by simply arguing against how an overhaul was achieved. “I don’t think those process arguments really work with the voters,” Lake said. “They’re tired of the process arguments.”
She added that the executive action was “wildly popular” in focus groups. “The voters just want to get some problems solved — they don’t care how we do it,” she said. “And they believe nothing is getting done in Washington, and they’re sick of it.”
Still, some Democrats acknowledge that much of how voters respond, how Congress responds, will depend on how Obama makes the case for his action.
“A lot of it depends on our messaging,” Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar told CQ Roll Call. “As you know, the president doesn’t have a very good track record on messaging.”
Overall, Cuellar thought the executive action would help Democrats with Hispanic voters — “because they’re going to see who took the action” — but he still thought it wasn’t going to be enough to satisfy all advocates. “The Hispanic community is diverse,” he said. “We’re not monolithic and we’re not of one mind.”
And he certainly believes conservatives will use the executive action “as a lightning rod.”
“I think that people that are against immigration reform are going to use the president’s executive action to really be against it,” he said. “I mean, they’re already against it, but they’re going to use it as an excuse.”
In that sense, the process of the immigration overhaul — and, more specifically, the messaging — could really matter. Diaz-Balart agreed with Lake’s proposition that voters were sick of process arguments.
“Usually people do not care about process. They just don’t,” he said. But he also thought there were exceptions under the right circumstances. “For example, there was huge exception there for Obamacare,” Diaz-Balart said.
It’s just a question whether an immigration executive action could be the next exception.
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