Obama's plan to extend legal status to illegal immigrants denounced by… Jonathan Chait?

New York Magazine’s liberal opinion writer Jonathan Chait is a smart and intellectually honest fellow, so it is a wonder why it took him this long to come around to noting that President Barack Obama is flirting with a potentially disastrous precedent by telegraphing his desire to extend legal status to millions of illegal immigrants.

In his most recent column, Chait opens by offering a perfunctory denunciation of the House Republicans who he says have invited Obama’s legally questionable moves by being reflexively unreasonable. That shibboleth out of the way, he proceeds to note that this condition does not provide the president with a license to exceed the constitutional bounds of executive authority.

Chait asserts that Obama is within his legal authority to provide millions of illegal residents, and that he personally supports Obama’s objectives with respect to immigration reform. “But the defenses of Obama’s methods seem weak and short-sighted,” he wrote.

To imagine how this method might be dangerous, you have to abstract it away from the specific end it advances and consider another administration using similar methods for policies liberals might not like. What if a Republican president announced that he would stop enforcing the payment of estate taxes? Or suspend enforcement of regulations on industrial pollution? Or laws on workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians?

“To think that the cycle will end here, and that a future president won’t claim more expansive and disturbing powers to selectively enforce the law, requires an optimism not borne out by history,” Chait concludes unassailably.

In other words, Chait is telling his fellow liberals, imagine if a Republican president at some point in the future cited the precedents Obama is setting today in order to pursue an agenda you don’t like. Chait is smart to put Obama’s shortsighted and autocratic style in terms his likeminded readers will understand, but it is nevertheless shocking that he thinks he must condescend in order to communicate this point.

The setting of bad precedents in the name of expediency which could someday backfire is a blindingly simple concept. Nevertheless, Chait’s fellow left-of-center opinion writers just “don’t understand.”

“I’ll be very surprised — and outraged! — if Obama announces a halt to all immigration enforcement,” Vox’s Matt Yglesias later wrote. He just does not necessarily believe that the move Obama is contemplating is necessarily the beginning of the end of the enforcement of all immigration law. White House Director of Progressive Media and Online Response Jesse Lee tweeted at Chait a New York Times article from 2008 which noted that the Bush administration refused to consent to an EPA recommendation to regulate carbon emissions. Translation: a future Republican president will feed his base in a similar fashion, so why should we be constrained today?

That is both a myopic and thoughtless analysis. Chait is correct; a defense of the rule of law means opposing even your ideological allies when they exceed their authority. Th NY Mag opinion writer has established that he is an honest broker who, while favoring liberal policy prescriptions, does not support the weakening of America’s republican system in order to see them enacted. In the process, he seems to also have outed those who disagree.