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Republicans have lost the fine art of the second-best

Alex Wong

In light of the collapse of congressional negotiations around comprehensive immigration reform, the White House is said to be prepping a series of measures to protect certain classes of unauthorized migrants living in the United States from deportation. The move, naturally, has outraged the president's conservative critics. What makes the issue unusual, however, is that immigration is a subject on which the more temperate and widely respected conservative intellectuals of the world tend to have hard-right opinions. Consequently, it's not Glenn Beck complaining that Barack Obama is setting himself up as a dictator, it's Ross Douthat fretting about "presidential caesarism."

In general, I'm actually reasonably skeptical about the long-term viability of America's democratic political institutions. But the impulse that's brought us to this particular crossroads has nothing to do with Julius Caesar and everything to do with a bizarre tic of the current crop of congressional Republicans — a refusal to accept a second-best outcome rather than a third-best outcome.

In other words, conservative members of Congress keep willingly embracing courses of action that they know will lead to policy outcomes that they know are worse than the outcomes that could have been produced through other tactics. It is not surprising that conservatives end up displeased with the results of this strategy. The proper cure, however, is obvious. Republicans should should start attempting legislative tactics that will lead to policy outcomes they prefer, rather than giving an absolute priority to maintaining their right to whine about things.

The strange death of cap and trade


To understand the immigration debate, you need to go back to a 2007 Supreme Court case about global warming. By a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled not that the EPA could but that the EPA was legally required to write Clean Air Act regulations to curb carbon dioxide emissions.

This was a big deal. It meant that henceforth the only way for the Republican Party to block rules curbing carbon dioxide emissions was to capture the White House and both branches of Congress and pass a major amendment to the Clean Air Act. Then came the 2008 election, taking that option off the table. The path forward seemed clear. Knowing that greenhouse gas regulations were now inevitable, Republicans would seek a legislative compromise. A cap and trade bill that superseded EPA regulation would appeal to both liberals and conservatives. It would achieve environmentalists' core goal of curbing carbon pollution, but also create a pool of revenue that politicians from both parties could use to support favored policy goals. And the legislative framework would give individual legislators an opportunity to ensure that key industries or regions were cushioned from the impact.

Regardless of whether you think climate change is the greatest challenge facing humanity today or a hoax cooked up by Al Gore to sell movie tickets, a cap and trade bill would be better than EPA regulation. And since EPA regulation was inevitable, the only sensible course was for Republicans to take the better outcome (cap-and-trade) rather than the worse one (Clean Air Act).

But of course, they chose the worse outcome.

The immigration dilemma

On immigration, the same basic pattern repeats itself. It is plainly the case that the federal government currently lacks the resources and legal authorities that would be necessary to deport every single unauthorized migrant living in the United States. Whether the Obama administration chooses to deport the unauthorized population in a quasi-random manner, or attempts to use its executive authority to prioritize who stays and who goes in a more sensible way, many people will be staying.

This is why, again, legislative compromise seems like an attractive option. In the context of a legislative compromise, not only will some unauthorized immigrants stay (which will happen regardless) but additional border security measures can be funded and other changes to immigration law (for example, more visas for skilled workers) can be introduced. Regardless of your views on what should happen with the unauthorized population, a compromise is strictly preferable to letting immigration authorities flail away at the situation just as a compromise was strictly preferable to letting the EPA handle climate change without congressional input.

Yet at this point, blindly choosing the worse outcome over the better one has become such an ingrained habit for the ideological right that it barely seems to have been considered. Instead, immigration restrictionists waged a vigorous intra-party war against the supporters of comprehensive immigration reform. They sought to prevent a sell-out, and did so utterly without regard to whether blocking comprehensive reform would actually lead to an outcome they prefer.

The definition of insanity


Et tu, John Boehner? (Karl Theodor von Piloty)

For months if not years, the specter of a legislative compromise stayed the White House's hand from taking executive action. The Obama administration really, really, really, really wanted a comprehensive immigration reform bill, and not just a review of deportation procedures. They wanted this for the sensible reason that comprehensive reform would be a much better policy outcome than executive action — better for liberals but better for conservatives too.

Yet it's not going to happen.

In American politics, to get your ideal policy outcomes you need to overcome a multiplicity of veto points. This rarely happens. The fundamental dilemma on immigration, as on so many other things, is that Republicans are failing to respond to this in a rational way. If you can't get what you want, you ought to consider the realistic alternatives in order of preference and try to get the best possible outcome. But Republicans have repeatedly decided to elevate clean hands and the right to be indignant about the evils of Obama-ism over attempting to advance any substantive goals.

This leads, naturally, to a situation conservatives find frustrating. They have a majority in the House and many seats in the Senate and Obama's approval ratings are underwater, yet conservatives keep ending up with terrible policy outcomes. What they don't realize, however, is that the fault for this lies not with their stars but with themselves.

But the facts are what they are. Conservatives are getting an outcome they hate because they decided — once again — to eschew any effort to have input into the direction of policy.