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The GOP's political strategy against Obama keeps leading to policies conservatives hate

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On Election Night, I wrote an homage to Mitch McConnell's political acumen. In the winter of 2008-2009, when Barack Obama was at the height of his popularity and Democrats had large majorities in both houses of Congress, he had an important insight. Republicans still had the power to withhold cooperation, deny Obama a sheen of bipartisanship on his initiatives, and ultimately to slow the gears of government. This would erode the president's popularity, and though it did not succeed in unseating him in 2012 it has made the GOP the dominant party at all other levels of American government.

But as we look over President Obama's plans for sweeping unilateral reform of deportation policy, it's worth a reminder that this strategy comes at a cost. Republicans' strategy has been savvy politics, but it's forced them — repeatedly — to accept worse policy outcomes than they otherwise could have obtained. Alleged presidential overreach is largely a mirror-image of systematic congressional underreach, a dynamic in which GOP members believe constructive engagement would be politically counterproductive and thus deliberately choose to leave obtainable policy concessions on the cutting room floor.

Health care and climate change

The clearest example of obstructionism leading to policy costs is probably the Affordable Care Act. Democrats had the votes to get this done, but the party was plainly desperate for bipartisan cover. In exchange for votes, Republican members of congress could have gotten tort reform or other policy priorities. But they preferred to keep their fingerprints off the bill, even if that meant a policy outcome they liked less.

On climate change, Republican behavior was even more counterproductive.

Back during George W. Bush's administration, the Supreme Court had ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to begin regulating greenhouse gas emissions. The Bush administration got around this by refusing to open the email in which the EPA stated that carbon dioxide is a pollutant (really). As soon as Obama became president, it was obvious that this particular strategy was dead. Either Congress would pass a new legislative framework for dealing with carbon-dioxide emissions, or else the email would be opened and the existing regulatory framework would proceed. Climate legislation would have reduced carbon-dioxide emissions by pricing them, which would have created a pool of revenue. Some of that revenue could be used to reduce taxes or advance other GOP priorities.

But Republicans preferred to keep their fingerprints off any kind of action, even if that meant a policy outcome they liked less.

Entitlements and the budget

A similar preference for worse policy outcomes has manifested itself through inaction as well. At various junctures around the "fiscal cliff" and the first debt ceiling standoff, the Obama administration offered different iterations of "grand bargain" that would have cut Social Security and Medicare while raising tax revenue above its Bush-era levels. Obama offered this deal even though the Bush tax cuts were written to automatically expire in the case of inaction. Obama, in other words, was offering a real policy concession (entitlement cuts) in exchange for political cover for tax hikes that were going to happen anyway.

But Republicans preferred to keep their fingerprints off any kind of action, even if that meant a policy outcome they liked less.

These triple-breakdowns of bipartisanship have made Obama a much less popular and successful-looking president than he otherwise could have been. He would have liked to have been the steward of a landmark bipartisan health care overall, a comprehensive budget deal, and an ambitious first cut at the titanic global challenge of climate change. Instead he's the champion of an incredibly contentious health care overall, presides over a still-unsolved long-term budget proposal, and his climate legacy is tenuous and subject to total reversal if Republicans win in 2016.

But this Republican strategy has left the long-term trajectory of federal taxes and federal spending in the United States considerably higher than it would have been had Republicans wanted to make deals. For a party driven by a core commitment to low taxes and welfare state rollback, it's a bit odd.

Same song, different tune on immigration

Which brings us, of course, to immigration. Much of the punditry around Obama's allegedly norm-violating actions seems to simply take congressional inaction on this issue as a given.

But Congress is, itself, violating a basic norm of American politics — the norm that says given a choice between a better policy outcome and a worse one, a legislator should choose the better outcome. We are accustomed to the violation of this norm because Republicans, at the urging of their leaders, have been following it rigidly since 2009. But something interesting happened in 2013, and many Senate Republicans went back to the old norm. They partnered with Senate Democrats to pass a bill that achieved Democrats' key goal of creating a "path to citizenship" for unauthorized immigrants living in the United States. It also, as bipartisan bills tend to, advanced a number of Republican priorities. That included a huge surge in border security funding, tighter e-verify rules, and a number of growth-friendly modifications to the future flow of legal immigration.

House Republicans mostly did not like the bill. But they also wouldn't give the bill an up-or-down vote in the House. And they also wouldn't write a version of immigration reform that they did like and pass that. They preferred to do nothing, even though inaction would lead to a policy outcome they like less.

It's not a new strategy. And it's not a crazy strategy either. But it is a deliberate choice. If Republicans wanted more conservative-friendly policy outcomes, they could be getting them. But they prefer more Republican-friendly political outcomes. It's not unreasonable for conservatives to think that this tradeoff is the right one, all things considered. But what is unreasonable is for conservatives to refuse to recognize that it's a real choice, a choice that is in their hands, and a choice that they continually make in the direction of worse policy rather than better policy.