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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The coming clash over immigration is reflective of past conflicts - In a presidency marked by a series of high-profile confrontations, Obama and the Republicans are now on the brink of another seismic clash. Neither side can afford a major miscalculation.

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post:

The scars from six years of political conflict between President Obama and Republican congressional leaders have quickly washed away all those gauzy comments about cooperation that were offered in the aftermath of the midterm elections. Today, Washington is bracing for a major collision over immigration, with each side calculating the risks and rewards of their actions.

Obama has insisted that he will take executive action by the end of the year to protect millions of illegal immigrants from the threat of deportation. Republicans are just as insistent that he will pay a big price if he goes ahead with what they regard as executive amnesty. GOP elected officials are now talking about shutting down the government or using other short-term budgetary measures to retaliate.

Obama’s determination to move ahead in the face of a substantial election defeat for his party is more than just a red flag to Republicans. Even some Democrats are nervous about how unilateral action on such a contentious issue will shape the opening stages of the relationship between the White House and a Congress that will be fully controlled by the Republicans and how badly the fallout from his moves could hurt the president and the party’s congressional wing.

Obama clearly sees it differently. He sees a clock ticking on his presidency, with little time left to burnish what he hopes will eventually be seen as a tenure that accomplished big things, from health care to climate change to immigration.

He and his advisers also see little prospect for legislative action on major issues, post-election comments notwithstanding, which suggests they believe there is more to be gained than lost by moving forward. White House Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri put it this way on Friday: “The principle for us is you can’t let that [GOP opposition] hold you back on solving other problems. You can’t tie up your whole agenda to how Congress is going to react.”

That conclusion is just the latest reminder that while elections may have consequences, they don’t necessarily change behavior. At the White House, the experience of the past six years — how elections have or have not changed working relationships with Republicans — has heavily influenced their assessment of this moment.

Previous disappointment

Neither victory for Obama nor victory by the GOP has materially changed the frosty relations between the White House and congressional Republicans. In every case, White House officials initially overestimated the prospects for cross-party cooperation.

It happened first after Obama’s 2008 victory, when Obama’s team assumed that goodwill toward the new president and widespread fears about the deepening recession would bring the two sides together to deal with the economy.

Ultimately, the GOP’s implacable opposition to the president’s stimulus package, followed by the huge partisan fight over health care, set the tone for Obama’s first two years in office — a period marked both by major achievements and deepening hostility.

Each side now has its talking points down about who should be blamed for the lack of cooperation.

After the huge Republican victory in the 2010 midterm elections, another opportunity for a change in the relationship came and went. Then, as now, Obama flew off to Asia days after his party’s shellacking for a long foreign trip. He returned for one of the most productive lame duck sessions of Congress in memory, one that included both compromise and confrontation with the Republicans.

That lame-duck session made Obama believe that he and the new Republican-controlled House might be able to do business on some big fiscal issues in the coming year. By the summer of 2011, after the debacle over the debt ceiling, all hope for cooperation had evaporated, and Obama’s presidency hit another low point.

At that point, the president gave up on working with Congress and vowed to take his fight to the country in 2012. He believed that by winning a second term he would put some momentum behind his agenda and force some accommodation by Republicans. Instead, there was, with some wrinkles, a repeat of the earlier patterns of confrontation and inaction.

Now, after another crushing midterm defeat for the Democrats, there are minimal expectations at the White House about getting things done through Congress and next-to-zero hopes on immigration. Past history and the urgency of not waiting have shaped those calculations about the consequences of defying the Republicans by going ahead on immigration.

In the days after Republicans won control of the Senate and scored major victories in gubernatorial and state legislative races, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John A. Boehner and the president all said they heard the same message — that voters were sick of dysfunction and lack of cooperation in Washington, that they wanted the two sides to work together and wanted to see results.

What’s crucial is how Obama’s team reads both parts of that message from the voters, and as Obama put it the day after the election, those who did not vote. Obama advisers believe what counts most with people are results, not arms linked with Republican leaders in photo ops. “Our view is the outcome is more important than the process,” Palmieri said.

Political consequences

There are raw political considerations for both sides as this showdown nears. Obama’s willingness to widen the already huge gulf between the White House and congressional Republicans underscores once again that he sees his coalition — the “rising America” of younger people, minorities, unmarried women and college-educated whites — as fully receptive to where he wants to take the country and politically beneficial to the Democrats in future national elections.

In the face of his midterm defeat, Obama has moved aggressively on several issues likely to win favor with that coalition, from the pact with China to reduce greenhouse gases that has drawn Republican opposition, to net neutrality, to the threat of a veto on legislation to authorize construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

However, much of his actions risk backlash from certain parts of the electorate. Obama shows no sign that he believes those voters will be coming back into the Democratic fold and that public opinion broadly is on his side on both immigration and climate change.

Republicans have their own political considerations. The day after the midterms, McConnell said that in the next Congress there would be no government shutdowns and no default on the debt. Anticipating Obama’s next move, Republicans are measuring how close to that cliff they can go as they brand him an imperial president who is disregarding the Constitution.

If Obama feels pressure from his coalition to move now on immigration, Republicans must weigh the longer-term political consequences of opposing what Obama is planning.

What signals will they send to Hispanic voters and others who support some kind of legal status for undocumented immigrants if they vow to undo what he may do? Will this confrontation shape the 2016 presidential nominating contest in the way that phrases like self-deportation shaped perceptions of the GOP in 2012?

In a presidency marked by a series of high-profile confrontations, Obama and the Republicans are now on the brink of another seismic clash. Neither side can afford a major miscalculation.

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