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Why Did the Washington Post Flip Flop on Obama's Immigration Policy?

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I don’t know if the proximity of President Obama’s forthcoming executive action to expand deportation relief is making people go wobbly, or what, but some of the same critics who were until recently pressuring him to make a move are now warning him to back off.

Back in the spring, when Obama first ordered the departments of Justice and Homeland Security to review U.S. immigration law, the Washington Post editorial board told the White House to accept that its strategy of appealing to Republicans with a more aggressive deportation policy had "failed."

"[A]ll law enforcement involves setting priorities," the editors wrote. "[W]hy continue to expend scarce law enforcement resources on deporting undocumented immigrants with no criminal records or whose offenses involve loitering or minor traffic violations? ... Mr. Obama has ordered a review of deportation policy. Any shift toward leniency will prompt more cries of selective enforcement from Republicans. Yet it is the GOP that has helped create and sustain the crisis in immigration policy by refusing, year after year, any reasonable reform. Such reform would recognize America’s need for a steady supply of low-skilled labor and for some sustainable status for the millions of undocumented immigrants who are ineluctable parts of U.S. communities."

Around the same time, National Journal’s Ron Fournier acknowledged the talk, but pressed for action.

Four months later, they’ve all backflipped.

This week’s Post entry is called “Frustration over stalled immigration action doesn’t mean Obama can act unilaterally.”

Obstinate, hopelessly partisan and incapable of problem-solving, Congress is a mess. But that doesn’t grant the president license to tear up the Constitution…. He is considering extending temporary protection from deportation to millions of illegal immigrants, including the parents of U.S.-born children and others who have lived in the United States for years. Conceivably, this would give Democrats a political boost in 2016. Just as conceivably, it would trigger a constitutional showdown with congressional Republicans, who could make a cogent argument that Mr. Obama had overstepped his authority.

"If you read all our editorials in full, it is clear our position hasn't changed," the Post's editorial page editor Fred Hiatt told me by email. "We have always shared the president's dismay with House Republicans' refusal to take up immigration reform, we have always acknowledged some leeway for prosecutorial discretion, and we have always been wary of a president diving too far into legislative authority." I appreciate the comment, but find it very hard to square the April editorial with the one published this week. You can't call for Obama to use his discretion to protect low-priority offenders in one editorial, then describe the same basic idea as a threat to the Constitution in another, without engaging in some degree of contradiction.

Post editorial board member Chuck Lane concurs with the Post's most recent editorial in full. Fournier in part. “Would it be wrong to end-run Congress?” Fournier now asks. “Another way to put it might be, ‘Would more polarization in Washington and throughout the country be wrong?’ How about exponentially more polarization, gridlock, and incivility? If the president goes too far, he owns that disaster.”

Kevin Drum exposes the problems with this argument. It leaves Obama no options other than the one that's destined to fail: convincing Republicans to support comprehensive reform. Something they resolutely refuse to do. Polarization, gridlock, and incivility on this score are just about maxed out. It's also strange to criticize Obama for inaction in March, then counsel a course of inaction in August.

Obviously it's true that upon further consideration, one might decide that inaction is politically preferable to action. Fair enough. But by what reasoning? We're left to guess.

The Post’s about face, by contrast, transcends questions of practicality and politics and extends to the question of legality, which shouldn't be subject to shifting winds.

One plausible explanation for all this is that these writers are using reflexive criticism rather than substantive considerations as their North Star. If there’s consistency here, it’s in saying the administration is moving in the wrong direction, no matter which way the arrow is pointing. But another, more troubling possibility, is that the outpouring of pre-emptive conservative denunciations of deferred action—the right's unconcealed attempt to work the refs and settle the question of legality before the policy has been introduced—is having its intended effect.