the national interest

An Immigration Shutdown Is the Dumbest Idea the Republican Party Has Ever Had

Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

The Republican Party has had some bad ideas, but it has never come up with a political tactic as obviously stupid as shutting down the federal government to protest President Obama’s immigration policies. It is almost a masterpiece of self-sabotage, harnessing the party’s most self-destructive short-term political maneuver to its most dangerous long-term demographic liability. It is the sharks-with-laser-beams of political maneuvers.

Incredibly, in the short time since the midterms, the prospect of a shutdown has progressed from unthinkable to probable enough that Republicans are apparently wracking their brains to come up with an alternative. Politico earnestly reports:

Well, they could — I dunno, just spitballing here — try maybe not shutting down the government. It’s just crazy enough to work.

The Republicans certainly have a valid procedural complaint about Obama’s prospective plan. The legal consensus is that the president is perfectly in his rights to use selective enforcement to carve out vast new practical exceptions to existing immigration law. Likewise, the Republican Congress was perfectly within its legal rights to refuse to lift the debt ceiling unless Obama submitted to various policy demands. The fair accusation is that Obama is playing Constitutional hardball, pushing his existing powers in new, potentially dangerous directions. One can imagine a future Republican president using selective enforcement to neuter elements of the tax code.

The trouble is that there is no reason to believe a shutdown will do anything to advance their protest. There are many reasons to believe it will do just the opposite. Every previous example of a shutdown has caused the public to turn sharply against the Republicans carrying it out.

Shutdown advocates have always tried to make various complex arguments to the effect that the president, not them, is the one shutting down the government. Their argument is that they are voting to keep the government open, conditioned upon the president accepting their policy demands, and his refusal to accept those conditions makes him responsible for the shutdown. Regardless of the merits of this argument, which are tendentious at best, the practical fact is that Republicans have never managed to gull the news media or the public into accepting it. They tried to argue that Bill Clinton shut down the government in 1995 and that Obama shut it down in 2013, and nobody other than hard-core Republican partisans bought it. It is highly unlikely that this same argumentative tactic will succeed where it has previously failed.

A somewhat more sophisticated rationale, of which you can find here and here, goes like this: Yes, the public blamed Republicans for the shutdown last year. But then they forgot about it and gave them a huge win the next year. So what’s the harm?

This is conceivably true. On the other hand, it’s extraordinarily reckless. The shutdown had a massive negative effect on the party. The fact that the party survived it does not mean it can survive any number of subsequent events. While Charlie Sheen’s career survived his first drug-fueled meltdown perfectly intact, it does not follow that an endless succession of drug binges would have no impact on his future earnings. Continuing to brand the GOP as the party of reckless antics at the very least runs the risk of contributing to a hardening impression. At best it is a futile gesture, as the inevitable public-opinion fallout will reward rather than punish Obama for his stance.

Then there is the fact that a shutdown would highlight an issue on which Obama will back the GOP into a corner. His unilateral executive plan will make the immigration stakes very easy to understand: He will be sparing several million illegal immigrants from the threat of deportation and allowing them to work legally. This will force Republican presidential candidates to promise to overturn Obama’s order and, thus, deport them.

The Latino vote was anomalously small during the midterm elections but will resume its upward trajectory during the presidential election. Florida alone, a rather important state, will shift several crucial percentage points based on demographic changes. Meanwhile, nativist crank Steve King is setting himself up as a power broker in Iowa, which will force Republican candidates to associate themselves with his crazed, racist diatribes. Recall such scenes as Rand Paul turning tail and running when a camera approached him with King to get a sense of the awkwardness lying in store for the GOP.

Come, my pretties. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The prospective shutdown is such an insanely bad idea that it is worth diagnosing what mental breakdown led the party to a place where this course of action has received serious consideration. One possible answer is that it stems from a congenital aggressiveness. Tom Edsall, a Washington reporter and longtime denizen of bipartisan poker games, once observed that the two parties display notably different approaches toward risk. “Conservative poker players are more willing to go for the kill,” while liberals “will simply check and turn over their cards to collect a more modest amount.

There are times when the all-or-nothing play makes perfect sense. This is not one of them. A government shutdown does not give Republicans leverage — it gives Obama leverage. They have no winning move here. The only play is to cut their losses and muddle through while sustaining as little damage as possible. They could even avoid the worst damage by doing something completely unimaginable and perhaps sitting down with Democrats to negotiate immigration policy, so that if there’s going to be an amnesty they can get something in return. It is a sign of the barking madness that continues to prevail within the Republican Party that such a course of action is not even getting a hearing.

Immigration Shutdown Worst Republican Idea Ever