Week In Politics: Obama's Executive Action On Immigration
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now our Friday regular political commentators - E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of the New York Times. Good to see you both.
EJ DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be with you.
DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Good to see you.
SIEGEL: And we will stipulate at the outset that in past conversations here, you have both approved of the substance of the policy changes President Obama announced. But as to process, David, you've expressed a sentiment much like that of John Boehner today.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: With this action, the president has chosen to deliberately sabotage any chance of enacting bipartisan reforms that he claims to seek. And as I told the president yesterday, he's damaging the presidency itself.
SIEGEL: And E.J., you have sided with the president's case for the legitimacy of his actions as he described them last night.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The actions I am taking are not only lawful, they're the kinds of actions taken by every single Republican president and every single Democratic president for the past half-century.
SIEGEL: So let's look ahead. And David, we'll start with you. Washington has been utterly polarized for a few years right now. Was there really a potential moment for compromise that's actually been lost? And if so, how much worse can it get here?
BROOKS: Yeah. There was a moment. The Republicans had control of Congress. They had - whatever you think of their sweet little hearts. They had a strong incentive to pass something to show that they could govern as a majority. And there were a whole series of issues - from patent reform to tax reform to trade policy - that they could've gotten something done. One of the things they really wanted to do is get a normal budget process going. So it acts like we have bills that go through committees, and they - you can debate them on the floor, and they - we have a budget that lasts for an entire year. And that was the thing they really wanted to do. That now is looking less likely. So we are going to be back for two or more years of completely dysfunctional government.
SIEGEL: But you see, the grounds for compromise did not include immigration, frankly.
BROOKS: No, I think they did. It's a matter of debate, and it's a matter of intent. I think Republicans understood - and especially the Republican establishment, which is now much more in the driver's seat than they were two years ago - that they had to get the immigration issue behind them if they want to have any chance with Latino voters. And so there was a strong incentive to do that - maybe not over the next two years, but certainly over the next three.
SIEGEL: E.J., your look ahead to the next two years - do you think things could be appreciably worse and more gridlocked than they have been?
DIONNE: I think things are much better now. We can have polarization without a purpose, which is what we would've had before, or we can have polarization with a purpose and be clear on what the stakes are. The reason the president acted is because, as he said just a few moments ago in Las Vegas, John Boehner sat on that Senate bill for 512 days and did nothing. And the notion that they were about to act on immigration - how is there any credibility to their promises? And I think the giveaway is Republicans are saying, well, maybe we would've acted this time, but now we can't act. They look for any excuse. If Obama hadn't done this, they would have found another. What I think is very good is he is now forcing the so-called establishment Republicans to really show their cards. They've gone along with the Tea Party on a lot of things. Are they honestly going to vote now to rescind President Obama's orders and go back to a policy of ripping apart the families of undocumented immigrants? So I think from now on there's going to be clarity in this debate, and I think clarity is much better than what we would have faced otherwise.
SIEGEL: Well, there is, David, as E.J. says, the question would they actually rescind these approvals in Congress? Or would a Republican president taking office - say in 2017 if that would happen - that person could totally rescind it. Is it politically feasible to think in terms of saying the 3 million of you who have had some legal status for the past couple of years - forget about it?
BROOKS: Yeah, I think they probably wouldn't rescind it. It would just too - be politically difficult. What the future Republican president would say is, look, if Barack Obama can do it, I can do it. I don't happen to like the way the Clean Air Act is written, so I'm not going to enforce that. I don't happen to like the way ObamaCare is written. I'm not going to enforce that. One of the things this does - it widens the power of the executive to behave unilaterally. It destroys - not destroys but hurts the legislative process as we've know it, where you have compromise, where you have the country the Constitution envisioned. It doesn't destroy it, but it's another slide in a slow degradation of our political system.
DIONNE: I just can't resist saying that's just not true. That Presidents Reagan and Bush also issued rather extensive executive actions on immigration. A spokesman for the president said, we're going as far as we possibly can without Congress acting. That was President George W. Bush's spokesman Dana Perino. So I think there is something...
SIEGEL: But what about that voice - we just heard a voice in Kirk Siegler's piece, a woman who was saying, we just had an election, and people overwhelmingly voted against these immigration policies to the extent that they were being considered.
DIONNE: We've had two elections. We had the election of 2012 with a very high turnout, in which Barack Obama won by 5 million votes. We had the midterm elections with a very low turnout - the lowest since 1942 - that the Republicans won. The fact that the Republicans just won an election does not mean that Barack Obama has to abandon all his principles. And I think he's decided that his best course is to try to get done what he can get done.
SIEGEL: David Brooks.
BROOKS: My newspaper has a story on the constitutional - a law professor's view of this. Here's Peter Spiro of Temple University, law professor, quote, "the magnitude and the formality of it is arguably unprecedented. It's fair to say that we have never seen anything quite like this before in terms of the scale." So it's not - if things like this have been done - not at this scale, not at this level - what I don't get is the big, aggressive death wish. This should be a liberal era. We've had a financial crisis starting on Wall Street. We're widening in equality. We have a demographic shift. Liberals should be running this country. Why don't they run this country? Because nobody has faith in government. Nobody has more interest in seeing government function - at least for a few months - and restoring faith in government than American progressives. And yet, this measure makes it - people are going to have less faith - more or less faith in government, less faith in Washington. To me, it makes - it's a step back for progressivism. And among other things, it makes a Republican president in 2016 more likely.
SIEGEL: He's talking about your people, E.J.
DIONNE: Yes, and the Republicans have systematically tried to block everything the president wanted since they won the 2010 elections, because they know that if people are dispirited about how government works, a lot of progressives will give up as they did in the midterms. So the whole question - this notion that President Obama poisoned the well - a lot of our debate is who poisoned that well first? And I think the well was poisoned a very long time ago. And so we are going to have this argument over the next two years.
BROOKS: I agree with that. I think Ted Cruz and Barack Obama have equal blame.
DIONNE: I know Ted Cruz. And Barack Obama is no Ted Cruz.
SIEGEL: OK. E.J. Dionne and David Brooks, thanks for talking politics with us once again.
DIONNE: Thank you.
BROOKS: Good to be with you.
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