By embracing President Obama's executive actions on immigration, Hillary Clinton has made a significant choice, not only on immigration but more broadly with regard to the Congressional GOP, that she may live to regret: the choice to destroy what remains of the Clinton legacy of moderation, "triangulation" and bipartisan compromise, and to promise the voters four more years of the current Washington status quo.
One media narrative you can expect to hear just about every day from now until Election Day 2016 is that the Republican nominee will be pulled to the right in ways that are harmful to his (or her) ability to win some otherwise persuadable voters, or in ways that motivate the other side's turnout - especially on immigration. While there is surely some truth to the charge - all political campaigns involve choices that narrow the voters you can appeal to, and the temperature of the immigration debate on the GOP side is quite intense - you almost never hear about how the same dynamic affects the Democrats, in large part because so many in the media simply don't see any position taken by any significant number of Democrats as being "extreme". But the choice Hillary has made on immigration is indeed an extreme one, and forecloses arguments she might otherwise have been able to make to general election voters.
Obama Goes It Alone
To recap, after the serial failure of "comprehensive immigration reform" pushes in Congress, most notably in 2006 and 2013, President Obama decided to take matters into his own hands and de facto legalize millions of illegal immigrants by announcing a number of unprecedented unilateral executive policies against enforcing the immigration laws, discarding even his own repeated prior admission that such actions were beyond his legal authority. Even leaving aside the legality of the move, it represents perhaps the most egregious and provocative of Obama's many efforts to rewrite the law by executive fiat rather than either enforce the laws as written or work with Congress to change them. For many Republicans, this was the final straw, convincing them that it was pointless to try to work at lawmaking with a White House that simply doesn't care what the law says and won't enforce it anyway.
Public polling on the specifics of Obama's move has tended to be split, and fairly volatile month-to-month, suggesting at a minimum that it is hazardous to get locked in too early to a hardline position on this issue. While there is fairly broad support for a path to legal status for illegal immigrants, that support tends to vary by how the question is worded (an endemic problem in issue polling), and Obama's unilateral actions have tended to be much less popular than the policy. A few samples:
-A November 2014 CNN/ORC poll showed 56-41 disapproval for Obama's executive order, even as respondents by a 72-26 margin thought the policy itself was either correct or didn't go far enough. A November 2014 Rasmussen poll showed 50-40 disapproval of Obama's immigration policy, and an NBC/WSJ poll at the same time showed 48-38 disapproval.
And Obama may not be done: "A newly leaked internal DHS memorandum produced for an off-the-record agency conclave reveals that the Obama administration is actively planning to circumvent a federal court injunction that suspended part of last November’s deferral-based amnesty initiative" as a result of a lawsuit by 26 states. The Administration has yet to go so far as to openly defy a court order, but it has already skirted contempt after admitting that it had been issuing work permits in violation of an earlier order in the case. The leaked DHS memo contemplates possible actions that could create an even more dramatic conflict:
By claiming absolute authority to grant work authorization to any alien, regardless of status, DHS is in effect claiming it can unilaterally de-couple the 1986 IRCA work authorization statutes from the main body of U.S. visa law...the administration now claims unprecedented discretionary power to permit anyone inside our borders to work.
Hillary Digs In
In that context, you might think that the old Clinton "triangulation" machine that gave us a "Sister Souljah moment" in 1992 would come up with some way to finesse a full-throated embrace of Obama's unilateral-executive-amnesty-or-bust approach on immigration. If you recall Hillary's 2008 campaign, in fact, the very moment it went off the rails was a poorly-executed effort to straddle the question of whether New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was right to issue drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants, which ended with her getting backed into the corner of supporting Spitzer, but while blaming his actions on a lack of bipartisan action in Washington: "Senator Clinton supports governors like Governor Spitzer who believe they need such a measure to deal with the crisis caused by this administration's failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform."
This time around, though, the sky is the limit. At the October 13 debate, Hillary declared that she planned to go even further than Obama:
JUAN CARLOS LOPEZ: Secretary Clinton -- Secretary Clinton, Governor O'Malley wants to open up Obamacare to millions of undocumented immigrants and their children, including almost 90,000 people right here in Nevada. Do you?
CLINTON: ...I want to open up the opportunity for immigrants to be able to buy in to the exchanges under the Affordable Care Act. I think to go beyond that, as I understand what Governor O'Malley has recommended, so that they would get the same subsidies.
I think that is -- it raises so many issues. It would be very difficult to administer, it needs to be part of a comprehensive immigration reform, when we finally do get to it.
...I want to follow up because I think underneath Juan Carlos' important questions, there is such a difference between everything you're hearing here on this stage, and what we hear from the Republicans....Demonize hard-working immigrants who have insulted them. You know, I came to Las Vegas in, I think, May. Early may. Met with a group of DREAMers, I wish everybody in America could meet with this young people, to hear their stories, to know their incredible talent, their determination, and that's why I would go further...than even the executive orders that President Obama has signed when I'm president.
COOPER: Secretary Clinton, let me ask you. Two of your rivals from your left, Governor O'Malley, and [mc_name name='Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-VT)' chamber='senate' mcid='S000033' ], want to provide instate college tuition to undocumented immigrants. Where do you stand on that?
CLINTON: My plan would support any state that takes that position, and would work with those states and encourage more states to do the same thing.
COOPER: So, on the record, you believe that undocumented immigrants should get instate college tuition.
CLINTON: If their states agree, then we want more states to do the same thing.
New House Speaker [mc_name name='Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI)' chamber='house' mcid='R000570' ], as part of locking up the support of his caucus, has promised no action on comprehensive immigration reform while Obama remains President, reflecting the deep breach of trust this White House has created by unilateral executive lawmaking on an area that Article I of the Constitution squarely commits to Congress. A new president, even a Democratic one, might in theory thaw that relationship - but today, in response to Ryan, Hillary Clinton announced her complete embrace of Obama's strategy of confrontation and unilateral action. MSNBC's Alex Seitz-Wald reports a statement released through "Hillary for America Latino Outreach Director Lorella Praeli" promising that Hillary, if elected, will "protect, expand and renew the executive actions of President Obama":
If Praeli's name isn't familiar, it should signal the extent to which the Hillary campaign is deep in the thrall of the far-Left on immigration: Praeli is herself an illegal immigrant who got a green card in 2012, she's an activist whose mother would likely be covered by the 2014 exective order, and she has herself previously blasted Hillary as a flip-flopper on immigration.
In fact, Hillary's rhetoric on immigration has hinted at an even more radical position: the wholesale abolition of green cards and lawful-resident status in favor of full citizenship for everyone legally in the country. Hillary "has argued that providing tiers of 'legal status' is 'code for second-class status,'" and during the first debate, her official Twitter account promised to fight for "full and equal citizenship" and declared dramatically that "There is no place in America for second-class citizenship," an unsubtle attack on lawful-permanent-resident status as if it represents some kind of Jim Crow:
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) October 14, 2015
Who Wants More of the Same?
Obviously, Hillary sees political upside in staking out such an extreme posture. The idea of compromise with the Republican Congress on anything is deeply unpopular with the Democratic base. In November 2014, left-leaning pollster Latino Decisions released a poll purporting to show 89% support for Obama's actions among Latinos, and Democratic politicos and left-leaning pundits repeat as a mantra that the 2016 election is more or less already decided by demographics in general and the decisive influence of Hispanic voters in particular. Democrats are launching a massive project to mobilize Hispanic voters ahead of the next election.
But it may yet prove that there is some value in the next election to persuading Americans who aren't single-issue immigration voters and aren't already hard-shell Democrats due to their stances on culture-war issues. And if those voters do matter, Hillary could find herself regretting the damage she is doing right now to what remains of the Clinton brand and her flexibility in pivoting to a general election.
After eight years of trench warfare in which Obama has never offered the kind of bipartisan deal-cutting that characterized even the most acrimonious of the Clinton years, Hillary faces the natural tendency of the party in power to see its support with the electorate decline - a tendency that throughout U.S. history has created an imperative for the would-be successor of a two-term president to offer something new, some theory of how the election is going to change things. And Hillary just gave that away. Even aside from the politics of the policy itself, the dysfunctional relationship between Obama and the GOP Congress has not been good for anyone's popularity with a restive public. Obama's overall approval ratings have been under water for a record proportion of his second term:
The last time Obama hit that mark in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls was April 2013. Excepting brief boosts corresponding to his reelection and the killing of Osama bin Laden, he has consistently been under 50 percent in the RCP average since December 2009. This makes him one of the least popular presidents in postwar history.
Gallup has kept regular track of presidential approval since the Truman administration. It reports that the most popular postwar presidents were Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton; their job approval ratings were 50 percent or better for at least two-thirds of their tenures. The least popular presidents were Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter; theirs were below 50 percent for at least two-thirds of their tenures. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush fall somewhere in between.
To date, Obama has been unpopular for more than two-thirds of his tenure. If he stays under 50 percent for the remainder of his term, he will have been unpopular for longer than any postwar leader.
Polling on whether the country is on the right track or the wrong track is even grimmer: the RCP average currently shows that by an enormous 63-27 margin, the voters think the country is on the wrong track, and perhaps more damning, there has not been a single poll in the entire RCP database showing more people think the country is on the right track than the wrong track since a Marist poll in October 2009.
Until just the past month, it was conceivable that Hillary could have branded herself as a different kind of Democrat than President Obama - one more like her husband, who always managed to find common ground with his Congressional antagonists and get things done. As a conciliatory player and veteran diplomat who could hit the "reset" button on the Obama-Boehner relationship in particular and forge a more sober negotiating relationship with the new Speaker. That certainly is the tack that Ryan himself has taken within the GOP caucus, sending the message that he would not hold over old grudges and would work to rebuild bridges between the caucus' Tea Party and moderate wings. But as the price of elbowing Joe Biden, Jim Webb, Lincoln Chafee and Lawrence Lessig out of the race and consolidating a commanding lead over Bernie Sanders, Hillary has decisively closed that door. There will be no new relationship, only more of the same. There will be no hope for change, only power.
Maybe the Democrats and their pundits are right: maybe demographics have permanently changed the American electorate to where the popularity of the party in power, the desire for change, the public's faith in the direction of the country and historical trends towards bipartisan balance are no longer relevant to American presidential elections. Maybe nobody cares anymore if the President simply makes domestic law by fiat and doesn't even bother talking to Congress. But if their theory of the electorate is wrong, their presumptive nominee has now left herself nowhere to maneuver. It's Obama's way or the highway.