How did we end up here, with Presidential action on immigration? Matt Yglesias lays it out: the Republican Congress has adopted a policy of rejecting compromise solutions even if it results in policies that they hate:
On Election Night, I wrote an homage to Mitch McConnell's political acumen. In the winter of 2008-2009, when Barack Obama was at the height of his popularity and Democrats had large majorities in both houses of Congress, he had an important insight. Republicans still had the power to withhold cooperation, deny Obama a sheen of bipartisanship on his initiatives, and ultimately to slow the gears of government. This would erode the president's popularity, and though it did not succeed in unseating him in 2012 it has made the GOP the dominant party at all other levels of American government.
But as we look over President Obama's plans for sweeping unilateral reform of deportation policy, it's worth a reminder that this strategy comes at a cost. Republicans' strategy has been savvy politics, but it's forced them — repeatedly — to accept worse policy outcomes than they otherwise could have obtained. Alleged presidential overreach is largely a mirror-image of systematic congressional underreach, a dynamic in which GOP members believe constructive engagement would be politically counterproductive and thus deliberately choose to leave obtainable policy concessions on the cutting room floor.
An opponent of the deportation policy reform, Ross Douthat, instead puts this as
[C]ongressional abdication. This is the point that liberals raise, and plausibly, in President Obama’s defense: It isn’t just that he’s been dealing with an opposition party that’s swung to the right; it’s that this opposition doesn’t know its own mind, collectively or sometimes even individually, and so has trouble bargaining or legislating effectively.
This isn't true. [There is genuine confusion, but the overarching strategy is obstruction. You can see this as Speaker John Boehner actively prevent[s] the Senate immigration bill to come to the floor while at the same time not offering any alternatives.] It is true that Boehner cannot often deliver enough votes to pass a bill through the House on the Republican majority alone, but this is an entirely self-imposed rule!
The President has chosen a third best path in the face of obstruction
Politics rarely gives you that first best solution. Almost always there's going to be some sort of compromise with the other side that's second best for both. Sometimes, on specific issues, the second best solution offered is worse than the status quo, and that's part of politics too. However, failing to try to find the second best solution, as the Republican leadership has often done, is not compatible with a functioning system. That leads to be the third best solution we see today. I think the fear of executive power is quite legitimate, but I think it is a necessary corrective under the following conditions:
- The policy should be have important direct benefits that get at real problems. In this case, rule of law is actually enhanced by reducing the number of people subject living in a shadowy space of uncertain enforcement.
- The policy needs to be legal in its own right. In this case, the President is executing prosecutorial discretion, which is inevitable to some extent given the sheer number of undocumented immigrants.
- The Congressional process has been given time to play out. The President rightly emphasized that the bipartisan Senate bill passed more than a year ago and the House has done nothing. Should they act, then we should move back into trying for a second best solution, but a policy of absolute obstruction is just the executive empowerment by another means.
These are case-by-case criteria and they're going to be slow going to meet and result in unsatisfying compromises. That's why they're third best, but they're still going to make a lot of lives better and I salute the President for what he did.
[Update: An editing run through, notably including a sentence fragment fix.]