There won’t be any executive action on immigration policy before the November elections, according to President Barack Obama. Nationally, the issue has looked like a loser for Democrats, so it seems like a pretty obvious move. Delaying action protects Democrats from being saddled with yet another unpopular Obama policy. But as one of the great military leaders of our time said, “It’s a trap!”
For Democrats running in tough states where independents can be persuaded (and weak Republicans can be persuaded to stay home) based on immigration issues, this move is exactly what it looks like. But it also gives GOP candidates a false gift: the ability to claim that the looming threat of mass amnesty of illegal immigrants looms over the nation. That’s not a bad issue – for now. But remember that in 2002 and 2004, protecting state-sponsored traditional marriage was a good issue for Republicans; by 2012 the issue had reversed. In addition to the light cover offered to 2014 Democrats, Obama’s immigration delay paves the way for future Democrats to point to 2014 GOP rhetoric as evidence of racism. All it would take is for one candidate to Mourdock up a debate by talking about “the Mexican menace at our border” or some such crap. It could also work as a shorter-term micro-issue: Democrats could identify pro-immigration pockets of both parties and drum up the issue as an example of Congressional intransigence. It wouldn’t be a stretch with the data infrastructure that’s already in place.
The messaging on this issue, as with all issues, has to be nuanced; the do-nothing message cuts both ways. Immigration could be one more issue on which the President has chosen not to lead. And that opens the door for campaign-trail discussions about new solutions that use the best of Republican and Democrat ideas – and casts aside the worst ideas, like wholesale amnesty or the President’s refusal to compromise on anything. The real opportunity for Republicans on immigration is to re-orient public positioning on the issue for 2014 and beyond.