"It's quiet out there... too quiet."
This line (now a full-blown cliché) was usually uttered by sentries in the old Hollywood Westerns, right before a blazing battle erupted -- which is why it seemed so appropriate today. All's been pretty quiet on the political front this August, mostly because town hall "meet your congressman" public events are fast becoming a thing of the past. Oh, sure, there's been some random sniping going on, but no gigantic issue has overshadowed everything else on the political scene (as in 2010, for instance, when we spent all summer arguing over the "Ground Zero mosque"). But we seem to be poised for a showdown when Congress returns to town early next month, and one way or another it may wind up completely defining the midterm election.
The big question right now is whether President Obama is soon going to announce a sweeping change in deportation policy. He's been "running the idea up the flagpole" for a while now, and could announce a new policy in early September (the White House has previously said he was going to take all of August to measure all the options). But then again, he might wait until the continuing resolution to fund the government passes Congress. Or Obama could even wait until after the midterms (as, indeed, some Democrats seem to be begging him to do).
There are other issues brewing, though, even if Obama does hold off on his big immigration announcement. Republicans (Tea Partiers, especially) have latched onto an incredibly obscure issue (the "Export-Import Bank") and seem prepared to fight to the death over it during the upcoming budget negotiations, for some unfathomable reason. And that's just one issue which could derail the budget process -- there could easily be many others quietly lurking out there.
The beginning of October is the beginning of a new fiscal year for the federal government. What this means is that Congress is going to have to pass some sort of funding bill, or else face another shutdown. It was less than a year ago (how quickly we all forget, eh?) that Republicans did shut the federal government down, for a whopping three weeks. What Congress passed back then (after the Republicans caved) will turn into a pumpkin at the end of next month, so they've got to pass some sort of "continuing resolution" bill so the government can continue to operate. The original plan (this being an election year) was that this would be not very contentious, and that both House Republicans and Senate Democrats would pass an incredibly short-term extension of the budget (two or three months, likely), just to get them past the election. But this plan ignores the Tea Party faction, which is always fond of lighting the fuse on this particular bundle of dynamite and then tossing it onto the railroad trestle ahead of the speeding train. They probably won't shut the government down this time in another futile effort to kill Obamacare (not after last time), but they could indeed do so for a whole range of other issues.
What all this means is it might only be a question of who fires the first shot, because a showdown seems if not inevitable than at least more likely than not. This is all going to play out with less than two months to go before the election, which is why it could become the defining issue for the voters.
If President Obama goes ahead and announces sweeping changes to immigration policy, Republicans are going to immediately become apoplectic with rage. "Thar's a-gonna be a shootout," in other words (to continue our Western metaphor). They are likely not going to be able to resist showcasing the most extreme voices in their caucus. Some of them are already threatening to shut down the government over the issue, in fact. This will pit Obama against the House Tea Partiers, in a replay of last year's shutdown.
Obama is a bit weaker politically this year, but not by a whole lot (his job approval polling is about two or three percent lower than it was last October -- significant, but not overwhelmingly so). Establishment Republicans know that the American public has largely forgotten all about the last shutdown by now, and they will be horrified at the prospect of reminding everyone right before the midterms. The Tea Partiers, however, do not share this opinion. The last time around, John Boehner wasn't able to control the House Tea Partiers, and Ted Cruz was leading the Senate Republicans (much to Mitch McConnell's dismay). McConnell and Boehner may not be able to control Tea Partiers next month any better than they did last year -- especially with the provocation of Obama announcing big immigration changes.
Some enterprising Democrat working for the national party apparatus just put up a "Shutdown Broken Promises" website (the site just went up, and needs a lot more quotes posted to really be effective, I should point out). This site was created to absolutely taunt Republicans who, last year, swore up and down -- over and over again -- that they simply were not going to shut the government down. Right up until the time that they actually did so. This shows a certain amount of feistiness from Democrats over the issue, which can be read as an iron-clad promise to use the shutdown issue as a blunt political object from now until the election. Democrats overwhelmingly won the battle of public opinion last time, and there's no reason to think they won't do so again -- even if Republicans merely threaten a shutdown (without actually going through with it). Democrats will be making the case, out on the campaign trail, that they are the only ones with enough competence to actually govern rather than just hold political tantrums. This could very well resonate, with a public that holds Congress in unbelievably low esteem.
If Obama does announce immigration changes, Republicans may decide the issue is bigger than any competence issue, and go right ahead and shut the government down. But this doesn't automatically make the issue a winner for Democrats everywhere in the midterms, of course. Polling on immigration is pretty volatile, meaning it can jump around when the issue is on the news every single night (see: the children "border crisis" a few weeks ago). Polling varies widely by region and state, as well. Vulnerable Democrats in red states (and there are a lot of them this year, especially in the Senate) are already terrified that the issue could be successfully demagogued against them. Look for at least some Democrats to loudly and publicly break with Obama over immigration, right after his announcement, if it happens before the election. This could be convenient for some of them, since showing independence from Obama is already part of their campaign strategy -- it would give them a clear issue where they could tell voters: "See, I'm not just a rubber stamp for the White House!"
As with any showdown, it's almost impossible to accurately predict what the ultimate result will be, when the dust clears. Who will remain standing, and who will be sprawled in the dirt? Will immigration become the key issue in the 2014 midterms? Will we all learn to say "Ex-Im Bank," just like the citified, inside-the-Beltway folk do? Will the Tea Party rustle the Republican cattle once again? Will National Parks close their gates for the second time? Stay tuned, Buckaroos, because while it's quiet out there now, it probably won't be for very much longer.
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