Kabuki? Or double kabuki? Mickey Kaus says we’re being played by both sides here:
Ah, but Obama has his own bill, waiting in the wings! As a “backup.” If negotiations fail, he just might introduce it! How does that work again? The already pro-amnesty Gang of 8 is unable to reach a deal–but then the President introduces his even more pro-amnesty plan, and the Senate is going to go, “Well, now that the President has introduced a plan it looks like we just have to forget our disagreements and back it.” Is that how the Senate works? I don’t think so. If the President introduces a plan the Senate will say “thank you” and be right back where it was before. The President doesn’t have the power to force the Senate to pass his plan, or even vote for it.
So what’s the purpose of this hollow threat? The only explanation I come up with is that it’s a Double Kabuki play: 1) The President gets to posture as the tough guy demanding a deal (or else he’ll unleash his draft!). Meanwhile the Hispanic caucus and the amnesty lobby can gnaw on all the pro-illegal statutory tweaks they would like to see in the “path to citizenship,” etc. But more important 2) Republicans like Rubio and Paul Ryan get to posture by denouncing the President’s draft (Rubio: “Dead on Arrival” Ryan: “the wrong direction”) thereby earning themselves seeming-tough-on-illegals street cred that might serve them well when they sell out by endorsing an instant-legalization compromise (as, in fact, Rubio has already done).
I’ve wondered about double kabuki myself. The key to an immigration deal is making it safe, or safe-ish, for Republicans to support it, especially in the House where deep-red-district primary challenges are a real threat. The most effective way to do that is for Obama to end up opposing the Rubio/Schumer bill on grounds that it’s simply too darned draconian, either because it demands too much from border enforcement or because it’s too slow about putting illegals on the path to citizenship (or both). The more vocal O is about that, the more amnesty-inclined Republicans get to frame their support for Rubio’s bill as some sort of vote against Obama and for tougher borders, blah blah blah. The trick for O is not to be too harsh in criticizing the Senate, though; if he slams Rubio’s bill as some sort of crazed immigration hawk’s fantasy legislation, as ridiculous as that might be, it could make some liberals in Congress nervous and suddenly he has a problem passing this thing on the other side of the spectrum. The correct way to get this done is to do what he’s doing now, faintly praising the Senate’s work on forging a compromise to reassure liberals while floating his own bill to make sure Republicans know that Rubio’s bill is stricter than the White House prefers.
But wait. What if, by sticking his nose into Congress’s immigration negotiations, O ends up polarizing it to the point where the whole thing falls apart? Wouldn’t that be a disaster for Democrats now that they’re on the brink of legalizing millions of illegals with support from the GOP’s young tea-party rock star from Florida? More to the point, does Obama want to blow up the negotiations so that he can keep demagoging the GOP as the anti-Latino party ahead of the midterms? The answer, I think, is that he sees floating his own bill as a no-lose situation. If he talks it up and Republicans rally behind Rubio to pass his bill instead, great! O gets a path to citizenship for illegals and most, if not quite all, of the credit for passing the bill since he and his party control most of the government right now. The brutal truth, as some Republicans aren’t shy about noting, is that Obama’s bill isn’t all that different from Rubio’s. And to the extent that it is different, Democrats and their immigration-lobby allies will go on agitating to make the final product more like O’s bill if/when it passes. He can live, happily, with Rubio’s bill as law. On the other hand, If Obama talks up his own bill and ends up polarizing the issue until the compromise falls apart, great! He’ll happily use that as leverage for the “GOP hates Latinos” talking point in 2014. Realistically, the only way he’ll have a truly consequential second term is if Democrats can take back the House; that’s what his gun-control campaign right now is all about, and that’s what the fate of things like cap-and-trade rests on. If Republicans hang onto the House next year, O’s last two years will be spent mired in lame-duck misery. If they don’t, he’ll be the rare president who ends eight years in office with a flurry of significant “achievements.” I think Obama would be willing to trade that legacy for the legacy of having passed comprehensive immigration reform with GOP help, especially given what it means for Democratic electoral gains long-term, but if he does get the House back in 2014 then he can pass immigration reform — and an assault-weapons ban, and cap-and-trade — later. The only true disaster scenario for him is if immigration talks collapse now and the GOP holds the House in 2014 anyway. That’s quite possible, and maybe even probable, and that’s why he’s not being more aggressive right now in trying to sabotage the negotiations.
The key to this strategy, though, is for Obama to push his own bill before negotiations over the Rubio/Schumer bill fall apart. If those negotiations blow up on their own and then O swoops in with his bill, it’ll look just as ridiculous as Kaus suggests in the first paragraph above. To really maximize the political benefits, the White House has to be able to credibly argue that negotiations fell apart due to GOP spitefulness towards Obama and his more “undocumented”-friendly immigration proposal. That’s why I think they’re leaking details of his plan now. They want this out there ASAP so that they can point back it to later as the source of GOP upset over immigration, even if it really isn’t. Exit question via Conn Carroll: What exactly is the difference between Obama’s and Rubio’s plans?
Update: On second thought, is it really a disaster for O if immigration talks collapse and the GOP holds the House anyway next year? It’s a disaster insofar as it means no new assault-weapons ban in 2015, but I think he’ll pass immigration reform in his final two years even if he’s stuck with a Republican House. The GOP’s simply not going to risk another “anti-Latino” messaging barrage from Dems before a new presidential election. Obama might not get this done now but he will get this done, no matter what happens in 2014.