Why Obama Should Be Quiet on Immigration

By taking strong public positions, the president torpedoes his own priorities.

Sometimes, silence really is golden. In politics, taking the path of highest visibility isn’t always the smartest way to do things. Last week presented two good examples of that principle being violated, one by a Democrat and the other by a Republican.

As we watch President Obama stumping for comprehensive immigration reform, the question arises: Does his high-visibility association with this issue make reform more or less likely to happen? The challenge of achieving comprehensive immigration legislation is not in winning the votes of House and Senate Democrats; it’s in getting enough Republican votes to pass it in the House and to avoid a filibuster in the Senate. Even after the party’s election debacle in November, and the role of Latino and Asian voters in bringing it about, persuading enough House Republicans and at least five GOP senators to support comprehensive immigration reform is going to be a heavy lift for party leaders, who clearly understand the importance of getting this issue off the table.

Every time Obama takes a public stand on immigration, he makes it that much more difficult for Republican members of Congress to support it. Keep in mind that 94 percent of House Republicans are in districts Mitt Romney carried and that 34 of 45 GOP senators represent states Obama lost. As a result, most congressional Republicans are far more afraid of losing a primary to a more conservative challenger than a general election to a Democrat. It is a lot easier for them to support an immigration bill that has broad-based support in the business and farming communities (and that also happens to be supported by Obama and the Democratic leadership) than to back a bill so popularly identified with the other side. If the president really cares about enacting immigration reform, he will get off the campaign trail, depoliticize it, and keep as quiet about it as he can.

To a hammer, everything looks like a nail; too often with this White House, the solution to any challenge is ramping up campaign-style events. Bad idea.

Then we come to Karl Rove’s announcement that he and the American Crossroads super PAC are creating an offshoot, the Conservative Victory Fund, that will try to cull the Republican herd of candidates who might not be strong nominees in key Senate and House races. Candidates like this (I call them “exotic and potentially problematic”) have helped cost Republicans a Senate majority. In 2010, the GOP lost five of the seven Senate contests The Cook Political Report rated as toss-ups going into Election Day; in 2012, it lost eight of 10. When a party loses 13 of 17 toss-ups over two elections, it has a problem. In many cases, Republicans nominated horrifically flawed candidates who didn’t quite self-destruct but were too weak to win. In other cases, they nominated candidates who did self-destruct. And when these problematic candidates pulled the pin on the grenade, other GOP office-seekers in their states became collateral damage.

Personally, I think the establishment of the Conservative Victory Fund is a good move for Rove and Crossroads. I only wonder why they felt it necessary to make a big splash about it, bringing the fight out in the open. The potential donor community for such a group can easily fit on a Rolodex (if such still exist), so it’s not like Rove and his super PAC needed the publicity to get the word out.

Torpedoing candidates who will further damage the party’s brand and, in many cases, cost Republicans seats, is an exercise that would be better done quietly. Hire an opposition researcher to dig up dirt on the feared exotic candidate, for example, preferably before he or she officially enters a race, and then leak the damaging information to a reporter on a not-for-attribution basis. It’s rarely hard to find a reporter who isn’t willing to run a story kneecapping a right-wing Republican candidate. In many cases, such leaks can keep a candidate from running or at least from building up a head of steam and winning a primary.

Conversely, a group such as the Conservative Fund could also support, through advertising and other organizational efforts, GOP candidates perceived to be highly electable. Lately, some mainstream Republican candidates have looked at the field, considered the direction the party has been going, and opted not to run at all. Knowing that a candidate who isn’t from the extreme Right can still find enough financial and organizational support could encourage many a highly electable fence-sitter to get in a race. With all that being the case, why was it necessary to start such a highly visible fight within the party?

It’s not often that Karl Rove and Barack Obama make the same mistake. But last week, they did.