What's Wrong With Politics-Driven Policy?

Today's big news is that the Obama administration, through executive action, is enacting a kind of mini-DREAM Act to help undocumented immigrants who were brought to America as children. We'll get to the details in a moment, but one thing we know for sure is that Republicans are going to be very, very mad, or at least they'll sound very, very mad. They'll make three separate arguments: First, they'll have a substantive argument about why it's a bad idea to allow any undocumented immigrant to work here legally. Second, they'll have a process argument about why it's an appalling power-grab for Obama to do this without congressional approval. Of course, they're quite happy with all sorts of executive orders and similar actions when a Republican is in the White House, but that hypocrisy doesn't necessarily make them wrong on that point. Finally, they'll say this is blatant "election-year politics" meant only to secure Latino votes in the fall election.

Which it may well be, at least in part. So my question is, what's wrong with that?

Barack Obama, like the 43 presidents who came before him, is—prepare yourself—a politician. The actions he takes are motivated by his substantive beliefs, but also his judgments about what's politically possible, what might be politically damaging, and what might be politically beneficial. Sometimes these political calculations involve what effect an action will have on his party's fortunes in the next congressional election, and sometimes they involve what effect an action will have on his re-election. If he's re-elected, these calculations will involve what effect his actions will have on the next Democrat's chances of holding the White House.

Presidents always have political motivations, at least insofar as politics is part of the calculation they make when they arrive at decisions. Sometimes it's a huge part, sometimes it's a tiny part, but it's always there. Saying "He's doing this for political reasons!" tells us absolutely nothing about whether it's a good idea or not. Of course he thought about the presidential race when he made this decision. It probably will help him further expand his advantage among Latino voters. But if it's a good idea on the merits, then we should only be thankful that the looming election pushed him to go ahead and do it.

Like I said, Republicans have substantive reasons why they think this particular action is a bad idea, so it isn't as though they can't talk about why they think this is a bad move. Let's have that debate. Maybe they'll be able to persuade the public. But I doubt it.

Anyhow, here are some details about the plan:

Under the administration plan, illegal immigrants will be immune from deportation if they were brought to the United States before they turned 16 and are younger than 30, have been in the country for at least five continuous years, have no criminal history, graduated from a U.S. high school or earned a GED, or served in the military. They also can apply for a work permit that will be good for two years with no limits on how many times it can be renewed. The officials who described the plan spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss it in advance of the official announcement.

The policy will not lead toward citizenship but will remove the threat of deportation and grant the ability to work legally, leaving eligible immigrants able to remain in the United States for extended periods. It tracks closely to a proposal offered by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida as an alternative to the DREAM Act.

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