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The GOP Reaction to Obama's Immigration Order Will Be Way More Damaging Than They Realize

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There are several reasons why Obama’s executive action on immigration has put Republicans in a terrible bind. There’s the fact that conservatives are likely to respond by demanding a hardline position from the party’s 2016 nominee, torpedoing his or her electability. There’s the growing risk that conservative anger will force Republicans to do something epically stupid in the near term, like shut down the government.

Both of these reactions would be damaging. But, in fact, there’s a far deeper kind of damage that conservatives are about to inflict on themselves. It has the potential to set the party back years.

Anyone who’s followed politics during the Obama era has probably noticed that conservatives love to couch their positions in the language of process. So, for example, conservatives rarely admit they want to disenfranchise poor people and African Americans. They talk about the scourge of voter fraud, and the cosmic unfairness of letting ineligible people cast votes. (Never mind that documented cases of voter fraud are about as frequent as space-craft landings on comets.)

Or, take Obamacare. Conservatives rarely make the argument, which many seem to believe, that the program was essentially a pander to key Democratic constituencies, like the sick, the poor, and single women. Now that the program is working beyond expectations, they even shy away from criticizing the sort of risk-pooling that allows the previously uninsured to obtain insurance. Instead, they obsess over any indication that the law was passed through trickery. (See here for why that’s utter nonsense.)

Politically, it’s easy to understand why Republicans argue at the level of methodology, rather than owning up to their underlying beliefs. Saying you think too many black people vote, or that Democrats give too much free stuff to poor people, really isn’t the way to win elections these days. Just ask Mitt Romney, one of the few national politicians who didn’t grasp the need to conceal his actual views on these questions.

But, of course, we all want to believe that we’re acting in good faith. And so the obsession with proceduralism runs much deeper than crass political self-interest. Take, for instance, the Tea Party’s obsession with the Constitution, which, according to its idiosyncratic reading, prohibits everything from the direct election of senators to the progressive income tax to federal spending on highways. It’s not that Tea Partiers hate redistribution per se (though they do). It’s that, in their telling, the rules of the game simply forbid it. “I will not vote for a single bill that I can’t justify based on the text and the original understanding of the Constitution,” the Tea Partier Mike Lee announced during his successful Senate campaign. (For that matter, even latter-day defenders of the Confederacy tend to favor procedural arguments—states' rights!—over substantive ones—like, yay slavery!)

What does all this have to do with immigration? Well, it turns out to be the one issue on which the right is least capable of maintaining the pretense that its objections are procedural rather than born of some deeper, darker suspicions.

Intellectually, of course, conservatives understand the importance of sticking to procedural objections even here. They can read polls as well as the rest of us. And the polls say that while Americans overwhelmingly favor the substance of Obama’s preferred immigration reforms, they also oppose enacting the reform by way of executive fiat.

No surprise then that the conservative message machine has gone on at length about the “constitutional crisis” the president is instigating. The right has compared Obama to a monarch (see here and here), a Latin American caudillo, even a conspirator against the Roman Republic. (Ever melodrama much?) The rhetoric gets a little thick. But if you boil it down, the critique is mostly about Obama’s usurpation of power and contempt for democratic norms, not the substance of his policy change. Some Republicans no doubt believe it. 

And yet, try as they might to stick to the script, there’s something about dark-skinned foreigners that sends the conservative id into overdrive. Most famously, there’s Iowa Congressman Steve King’s observation last year that for every child brought into the country illegally “who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”

While King tends to be especially vivid in his lunacy, he’s no outlier. Just yesterday departing Congresswoman Michele Bachmann opined that “the social cost [of Obama’s order] will be profound on the U.S. taxpayer—millions of unskilled, illiterate, foreign nationals coming into the United States who can’t speak the English language.” (Not to worry, GOP leadership—King and Bachmann are graciously slinking off stage. They’re traveling to the Mexican border today to inspect the problem first-hand.)

The problem with drawing these crazy relatives down from the attic isn’t just that it exposes the GOP’s soothing proceduralism as a sham when it comes to immigration reform. It’s that it exposes the GOP’s proceduralism as a sham more broadly. It simply defies logic to believe that Mexicans (and maybe Muslims, the other minority group Bachmann et al feel comfortable hounding) are the only group of non-white or non-affluent Americans the GOP’s conservative wing disdains. And the longer the immigration debate goes on, the more damage will be done to that fiction.