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Campaign Shifts to Immigration

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It wasn't supposed to happen this way. Republicans were so confident they had devised a winning 2014 campaign strategy that they went ahead and just admitted what it was going to be, almost a year out. As 2013 ended and 2014 began, Republicans weren't shy about letting everyone know that the midterm contest was going to be a single-issue election campaign for them, and that that single issue was going to be the abject failure of Obamacare. Republicans in the House were adamant that nothing else should detract from this single-minded obsession, which (in layman's terms) equated to the House doing absolutely nothing on all the other issues on its agenda. No immigration bill would be voted upon, they said, because doing so would just take attention away from the white-hot focus on Obamacare.

That was then, this is now. Back then, the Obamacare website was still struggling and Republicans were absolutely confident that at least one of their scare stories (predicting Obamacare woe and doom among the public) would prove to be true. Disaster was assured, they all assured themselves. It was downright inevitable. They had told themselves Obamacare was doomed so many times that they all fully believed it. They were convinced that "repeal this monster" would propel them to victory in November, and, further, that this is all that it would take -- any other issue would only serve to distract the public's anti-Obamacare rage, to their detriment.

As they head off for their August town halls, however, this entire plan seems to have been eclipsed by a single-minded focus on immigration. Republicans (excepting possibly Rick Perry) didn't foresee the media fixating on the "border crisis," which has now forced them to act (on an issue Republicans had fully prepared to ignore altogether).

Partly this is due to virtually all of the news on Obamacare being good this year. From the announcement that over a million more people than expected signed up through the Obamacare exchanges through to more recent news, none of the horror stories have come true. Republican governors are actually feeling the heat for refusing to expand Medicare in their state. The public's attention has moved on as well. House Republicans promised repeatedly that they would have "a plan of their own" to replace the hated Obamacare, but they have not been able to agree on a single thing all year long (much less a comprehensive bill). They are, bluntly, trying to convince the public that their "nothing" is better than the "something" of Obamacare -- always a dubious proposition in politics.

Even John Boehner trying to sue President Obama is pretty timid stuff -- or, at least, it will soon be seen as such by the very voters it was intended to impress. A lawsuit, after all, falls far short of impeachment (which is indeed a wildly popular idea among hardcore Republican voters), and when they figure out that Boehner is suing Obama to essentially try to force him to implement Obamacare faster, there are going to be some disappointed and confused Republican voters out in the rank and file.

What else have Republicans got to run on? Benghazi? The I.R.S.? Those subjects have been so thoroughly explored by now that few expect any poll-moving revelations even from yet another House committee's Benghazi investigation (scheduled to start in September).

John Boehner might have thought that forcing his House to vote on a border crisis bill right before their five-week vacation would have been enough to sidetrack the issue for the remainder of the campaign. He tossed all the red meat into the bill that the Tea Party demanded, guaranteeing that it'll never make it to the president's desk. Perhaps he figured that by doing so he had successfully taken the issue off the table for the foreseeable future, and appeased the Tea Partiers in his own ranks.

This is wrong, for two reasons. The first is that when Congress returns from their multi-week rest, the issue is still going to be front and center. Democrats in Congress are still going to be bringing it up, it can safely be assumed. If Republican voters make it a big ugly issue in the town halls, it will put a different sort of pressure on the party to do something. The second reason why the issue is not going to fade away is that President Obama is likely going to act before they get back. He'll probably time it for maximum effect, perhaps announcing his new policy the week before Congress returns (say, at the end of August).

Obama is reportedly considering sweeping changes to how the executive department prioritizes deportation policy. These changes have been rumored to affect almost half of the undocumented immigrants living in America (5 million out of 11 million is the figure being batted around, from all reports). This is going to hit the midterm campaign like a bombshell. It is instantly going to become the biggest issue in the campaign, in fact. The original Republican plan to campaign on "all anti-Obamacare, all the time" is going to lay in tatters, as they all rush to outdo each other in denouncing Obama's new immigration policy.

President Obama now knows that anything major he accomplishes in his second term is going to have to be the result of his own actions. Getting anything through Congress is now completely out of the question. If Republicans do well in the midterms, he may face a Republican-led House and Senate -- which isn't going to follow Obama's agenda (to put it mildly). If Democrats do well in the midterms, about the best they can hope for is continuing the status quo of holding onto the Senate (but with far from a filibuster-proof majority), and being the minority party in the House. Which means another two years almost exactly like the last two years, for Obama. The Republicans in the next "do-nothing" Congress are going to devote all their energy to making Obama's second term barren of legislative victories. And remember -- that's the best case for Democrats in the midterms.

Obama knows if anything is going to happen from now until 2016, it's going to be through his own actions. This will free him up, in a way, because he won't be worrying at all about reaching out to congressional Republicans -- who, through their own continued obstructionism, have put themselves completely out of this sort of reach. Without such worries, Obama may go a lot bigger than he might have otherwise done (especially if that 5 million figure proves anywhere near true).

But the bigger the action by Obama, the bigger the reaction from the Republicans -- that's also pretty much guaranteed. They simply won't be able to help themselves, as the more extreme members and candidates crank up the demonization and demagoguery. Few Republicans in safe districts really care all that much about wooing the Latino vote, and they're going to prove this in a big way, beyond any shadow of a doubt. The fact that this shrinks their party's chances for capturing the White House in 2016 is not going to convince them to keep quiet. In fact, the campaigning for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination has already really begun, meaning that the candidates are already moving far to the right of even Mitt Romney's "self-deportation."

This is really going to get interesting, because Obama's announcement may come within days (or at the most, a few weeks) of Boehner actually filing his lawsuit. Suing the president to get him to implement Obamacare faster is going to seem like pretty small potatoes to a Republican base whipped into an anti-immigrant frenzy by Obama's policy announcement. My guess is that there will be loud and immediate demands to either expand the lawsuit to include Obama's immigration action -- or to just go ahead and file articles of impeachment in the House. Much to Boehner's dismay, these calls will not be coming from Democrats, but from his own House Republicans. Boehner will have the chance of either appearing weak (by sticking to his original lawsuit's limited nature), or going along with the Tea Partiers' demands (which he now has a track record of doing, pretty consistently).

One way or another, this campaign is going to have little to do with Obamacare, when the dust settles. Of course, there is always the possibility of future events popping up which will pre-empt the debate over immigration (to put this another way: October surprises, by definition, are usually unexpectedly surprising). But barring any external events that claim center stage in such a fashion late in the campaign, President Obama may successfully force Republicans to contest the election mainly on the subject of immigration reform. This is a risky strategy, no doubt. In fact, it is a better strategy to boost Democratic chances in 2016 than it is to win seats in 2014 (most of the closest Senate races this year are in states with very small Latino populations). Republicans might just win all the seats this year that the pollsters are currently predicting.

No matter the outcome, however, it will indeed be remarkable for the president to singlehandedly shift the entire midterm election strategy of the opposition party to an issue of his own choosing. My guess is that by the time everyone votes in November, the Republican anti-Obamacare strategy is hardly going to cause a ripple, while the debate over immigration reform is going to be the main event. Whether it ultimately helps his party or hurts his party, President Obama's announcement on immigration reform seems likely to become the overriding issue in the midterm campaigns.

 

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