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Immigration Reform: Nancy's Hurling Lemons, Can John Make Lemonade?

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When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Speaker John Boehner might want to remember that advice when Nancy Pelosi unveils her discharge petition for the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill.

"Immigration reform is GOP kryptonite." That's a comment I made in response to a recent Huffington Post article. The rejoinders that flooded back in were evidence of just how excited some Republicans can become about this subject, and it's exactly why Nancy Pelosi is so dramatically raising it.

It's also precisely why John Boehner wishes that she wouldn't.

It's not all bad news for Boehner though. There are specific communication measures that he can take to escape from the political corner Mrs Pelosi is attempting to push him into.

Here's what to look for in a considered GOP response:

Step One: The Silent Judo Throw

In rhetoric there's a technique called concessio. This basically means "agree with your opponent." It's very hard for somebody to stay on the offensive when the other side just agreed with them. Debaters think of this as a judo throw because just like in the martial art, it takes your opponent's momentum and uses it against them, so that they overbalance.

The question is: Where exactly should John Boehner agree with Nancy Pelosi?

Step Two: Find the Common Ground and Agree With It

In whatever Nancy Pelosi says at tomorrow's press conference, there will be areas where John Boehner can agree -- even if it's only in a single sentence. For example, if somewhere Pelosi makes a statement such as "Immigration policy is a mess." That's a sentiment Boehner can readily endorse.

Concessio will have been achieved, and the Pelosi momentum will have been temporarily checked.

Step Three: Understand the Hidden Common Ground and Appear to Ignore It

The next step would be invisible to the watching public, but John Boehner's areas of agreement with Nancy Pelosi might go deeper than we think. For the sake of argument, let's say that Pelosi has three main goals:

  1. Re-energize the stalled debate about immigration reform
  2. Put John Boehner into a difficult position with his own caucus
  3. Provoke Tea-Party types into some potentially vote-losing statements

John Boehner won't be in agreement with points one and two, but point three could be quite interesting for him. The GOP has several primaries coming up where the Tea Party are challenging establishment figures -- Mitch McConnell for example. Something that provokes those candidates into regrettable statements that render them unelectable could be just what John Boehner quietly welcomes.

Rather than causing a GOP headache, Mrs. Pelosi's strategy could go some way to removing a couple of them - if the response is properly handled.

Step Four: Attack the Stratagem, not the Policy

There is a large difference between the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill that Mrs Pelosi is promoting, and the means by which she's doing it. The GOP response can move into it's attack phase by disagreeing not with the policy itself, but with the stratagem of using a discharge petition, which is after all, something of a procedural firework aimed at the media.

Step Five: Seize the Initiative

Unlike for Nancy Reagan with her anti-drugs message of "Just say No," the same statement is regrettably not an option for John Boehner when it comes to immigration reform.

If the Republican's have any new ideas about immigration, then this would be a good time to indicate them. Nancy Pelosi will have provided the news platform -- John Boehner will then have the opportunity to take advantage of it.

Step Six: Carefully Consider the First Responder

Speaker Boehner himself might not be the best person to lead the response. The immigration debate is a highly charged one, so it would be smart to use a speaker who is already seen as being positively invested from the GOP side. Marco Rubio could be a good choice, or even GOP elder statesman John McCain.

Tomorrow's press conference need not be the Boehner-trap that it first appears. The damage done will depend entirely on how he directs the response -- and that is directs the response, not delivers it. If handled correctly, the GOP lemonade stand can come out of this with increased credibility on a difficult topic. If handled badly though, the party, and Mr. Boehner, can expect to be spitting out lemon pits from now until the mid-terms.

The question is, can John Boehner and his top-team avoid taking a great big bite from the lemon that Mrs. Pelosi is about to so gleefully offer them?

Peter Watts is a communications coach and analyst. His weekly blog of ideas and tips for presenters can be found at http://www.speak2all.wordpress.com