Fair and Unbalanced

Mike Littwin

"The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles."


IF you watched the Obama immigration speech or even if you didn’t, it comes down to the same thing.

The speech was stirring. Or it was manipulative.

His words freed 5 million from the shadows. Or those same words were an attempt to obscure a dark power grab.

People will reliably make the same arguments whether they saw the speech or not. The one thing we we can agree on, after all, is that we don’t agree. This was either Obama doing the right thing, regardless of the cost, or Obama making good on an unkept political promise and letting the rest of us pay.

I hope you did see the speech. It was all there, 15 minutes of vintage Obama, old school Obama, a speech that reached heights without need of speech-writerly flourishes. It was plainly, yet eloquently, told. Too many Obama speeches leave you wondering whatever happened to Obama the orator. This time he showed up.

It’s the heart of Obama’s case: There are 11 million immigrants without documents and something must be done; leaving them in the shadows can’t be an option for Americans who believe in justice.

This was Obama, just weeks after Shellacking II, saying that he was still here. And not just saying. There was the matter, too, of the 5 million and, yes, of Obama’s bold decision to go it alone.

This was the stuff of high drama. Off stage, Republicans were calling for, well, something — censure or a shutdown or more lawsuits or Ted Cruz slyly playing it from the Senate floor as a Roman set piece in which Obama is seen overthrowing the Republic.

And yet, the TV networks didn’t see the need to show the speech, leaving our small-d democracy to the shoutfests on cable news. It was a pretty shocking decision given the stakes, and yet somehow not at all surprising, although some stations actually snubbed the networks and showed the speech anyway.

What no one can dispute is that these are the times in which we live, and that the Obama speech, whatever its merits, came too late to change much of that.

Obama did have a story to tell, though. He had several stories, in fact. He first countered the Republican brief against him. The border has never been more secure, he pointed out, and the fences never higher. Deportations were up, crossings down. The accusation that he’s inviting Latinos to cross the border — in what the Tancredistas call an invasion — amounts to nothing but talk.

And then there’s the matter of executive authority. He wasn’t the first or second or third president to use it as a tool in setting immigration policy. Reagan used it. Bush I used it. If Obama was working with larger numbers – and if Obama himself had questioned whether a president had the authority — Obama offered an easy answer. If Republicans objected, they had a way out: pass a bill. If it sounded like a dare, that’s because it was. He really did draw a line in the sand, and this time Republicans are furious.

To pass a bill, of course, Republicans would first have to craft a plan beyond, say, self-deportation. The Senate passed a bipartisan plan with 68 votes, but House Republicans were having none of it. But without a plan, someday a Republican president could be faced with overturning Obama’s orders, taking immigrant mothers from their citizen children, clinching the Latino vote for Democrats forevermore. Agreeing to a plan has to be an easier course than that.

Obama made a more interesting argument on amnesty. He said what we have now is amnesty — amnesty from the rule of law. He said the 11 million immigrants here want something different – a chance, as he put it, “to get right with the law.” He said that bringing people out of the shadows would make it tougher on the criminals and easier on the children.

“Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law?” Obama asked. “Or are we a nation that gives them a chance to make amends, take responsiblity, and give their kids a better future?”

This was at the heart of Obama’s case. There are 11 million immigrants without documents and something must be done. Leaving them in the shadows can’t be an option for Americans who believe in justice. If House Republicans wouldn’t even address the issue, he had no choice but to do what he could.

Polling shows that most Americans want this issue put behind them, even if it means – note to John Hickenlooper — a pathway to citizenship. Of course, the recent polling also shows that most object to Obama’s unilateral path.

For Obama, that was the point of the speech – reframing the argument from one of executive overreach to one of America’s sense of itself as a nation of immigrants. Obama quoted from the Book of Exodus on the immigrant: “Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger — we were strangers once, too.”

Did the speech change anyone’s mind? I don’t know. Once, long ago, in the early Obama years, it might have. But, in any case, the speech did tell the story of how presidential action would lead to 5 million changed lives, and at this point, that might have to be enough.

Littwin: Obama rides high atop the Republican wave

obama surfing

THE strangest thing has happened. As everyone knows, Barack Obama’s world turned upside down on Nov. 4. But then came the unexpected: The world kept spinning until, eventually, Obama somehow found himself on top.

If history is any guide, Obama may not stay there for long. But in what should be the afterglow of the Republicans’ huge midterm victory, the news instead is all about Obama. And some of it, shockingly, is even good.

The China-climate pact? Yep. All the chatter is about how Obama’s surprise agreement with the Chinese leaves the Republicans flat-footed and all but flat-earthed. Forget the I-am-not-a-scientist shtick. The Republican to watch now is Sen. Jim Inhofe, the unabashed climate denier who says the whole thing is, and I quote, a “hoax.” This is the same Inhofe who is expected to resume his chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee. I hope you’ve got cable, because C-SPAN 2 is going to be some must-see TV.  

Obama’s so-called betrayal would end a congressional stalemate and bring 5 million people in America out of the legal shadowlands by lifting the threat of deportation. Does searching for a way to make that happen in a way lawyers assure him is constitutional really constitute a betrayal?

The immigration-reform standoff? Obviously, this is about Obama. And here’s how this thing might well play out: When Obama makes his big speech on executive authority, don’t be surprised if he asks Republicans to please do the right thing and pass an immigration-reform bill that would make his reluctantly-invoked executive orders go away. And what will be the Republicans’ excuse for not doing that? Because they don’t want Obama to get a victory? I’ll leave it to Cory Gardner to judge whether that’s mature.

The vote on Keystone? Yeah, that’s about Obama, too. I don’t know if this is a winner for Obama, but it’s a loser for Mary Landrieu, who called for the vote — and got it as a favor from Harry Reid — in a desperate attempt to save her Senate seat by showing her constituents in Louisiana that she can be as much in the clutches of Big Oil as any Republican.

If Obama has to veto the bill, he’ll at least make environmentalists happy. Of course, you’d assume that when Republicans take control of the Senate next year, they’ll be able to make a deal with Obama to get the pipeline. Oh wait – that means they’d actually have to make a deal with Obama.

Look, the story here should be what Republicans plan to do next. Except that, as far as I can tell, they don’t plan to do anything next. Here’s the agenda: They’re going to stop Obama’s nominations. They’re going to vote to repeal Obamacare — or is it Grubercare? — and hope that all the Obama vetoes will be used somehow against Hillary Clinton, unless, of course, the Supreme Court gets there first. And they’re going to weigh shutting down the government — in response to Obama’s moves on immigration — while in actuality setting up the real showdown, the one between John Boehner and Ted Cruz.

In the meantime, they have Charles Krauthammer — one of the conservative wise men – on Fox talking about impeachment, just because it’s Fox. It was not impeachable, apparently, when Reagan and Bush Sr. decided to use executive authority to defer deportation for 1.5 million illegal immigrants. I guess you have to get to 5 million before it counts.

I’m no constitutional scholar (although my law professor daughter does advise me, and for free), but Ross Douthat, the very sharp New York Times conservative columnist, accuses Obama of committing a great betrayal. I’m not sure how he gets there. Let’s say that Obama’s executive orders might be an overreach. Let’s say that even though other presidents have taken similar steps, Obama’s large strides might be a step too great.

We can even go a step further. There’s an article in the Times showing how the best arguments against Obama’s position have actually been put forward by, yes, Obama himself.

Asked, for example, during a Google Hangout last year if he could more to keep immigrant families from being “broken apart,” Obama answered: “This is something that I have struggled with throughout my presidency. The problem is, is that I’m the president of the United States, I’m not the emperor of the United States. My job is to execute laws that are passed.”

Now he says that he can bypass Congress, and bypass being an emperor, by invoking prosecutorial discretion. You definitely have to agree with at least one Obama here.

But you also have to ask yourself who is doing the betraying. It was pure politics that stopped the House from voting on the Senate immigration reform bill — passed 68-to-32. This is an enforcement-first, fence-building, drone-flying, wait-10-years-for-a-green-card, back-of-the-line, pay-a-fine, English-first bill that begged Republicans to vote for it. If you didn’t vote for it, you had to believe either that, as Mitt Romney put it, the 11 million immigrants here illegally would self-deport or the U.S. government was prepared go into full human-roundup mode. Let’s call it immigration-denial.

You can argue motives. Certainly, the Democrats have made promises to Latino voters that they haven’t kept. But for Obama, who doesn’t have any more elections, this has to be about legacy and maybe even about doing the right thing. Obama’s so-called betrayal would mean removing 5 million people from fear. Does searching for a way to make that happen — in such a way that the lawyers assure him is constitutional — really constitute a betrayal?

What’s clear is that, in terms of politics and of plain old justice, Boehner and company should have put the immigration issue behind them a year ago. Instead, they put Obama in position for history, not to mention most Latino voters, to judge him the winner.


The news is out: Barack Obama is preparing to wave the red flag in the face of the bull, to borrow Mitch McConnell’s elegant phrasing, as soon as next week. And Obama’s team seems delighted by the prospect.

The red flag is, of course, Obama’s threat/promise/vow to issue executive orders on illegal immigration. According to reports, this “executive amnesty” — in Ted Cruz’s words — would protect as many as six million illegal immigrants from deportation.

And the bull? Do I really have to say?

It’s no secret why Obama is moving forward on immigration. In taking this politically risky step — which will no doubt inflame many people — he is counting on at least two mitigating factors:

Republicans have been asking Obama to hold off so they could have time to do something about immigration in the new Congress. You may remember the current Congress, in which the Senate passed immigration reform with 68 votes and the House has done … nothing.

One, that he’s doing the right thing. The inability of Congress over many years to pass immigration reform is clearly a major scandal. Polls consistently show most Americans want something done. Let’s be honest. Immigrants have been lured to come here illegally, often at great risk, with the promise of jobs and the offer of a devil’s bargain that, to get those jobs, they’ll be forced to live in a shadow economy with the constant threat of being deported.

Two, that Republicans — as outraged as ever — will overreach in their response to the news and inevitably drive Latino voters ever further from the party.

If you haven’t been counting — and if not, now might be the time to start — there are many ways to get to overreach. The most likely would be a government shutdown, which some House conservatives are already predictably demanding. A vote to fund the government is due next month, providing a handy battleground. Let’s just say that Obama and Ted Cruz both appreciate the timing.

The Washington Post reports that Republicans are divided in how to respond. McConnell, soon to be Senate majority leader, says there will be no shutdown, bull or no bull. Meanwhile, Speaker John Boehner says all options are on the table, presumably including a shutdown and, yes, his lawsuit. (Bet you forgot about the House lawsuit against Obama. Now it could include immigration. And, I know, maybe a quarantine.)

You know how Cruz sees the situation. We’re waiting to hear from Cory “Shutdowns Are Bad” Gardner, who really doesn’t want to have to vote on this, having insisted during his entire campaign that he never voted for a shutdown.

The most absurd overreach would, of course, be impeachment, which definitely won’t happen because no one is that, well, incautious. But the talk is starting on talk-radio and FoxNews, and that’s absurd enough. Charles Krauthammer warns that Obama is trying to trick Republicans into doing something rash and says that although the executive orders (as yet to be released) would (in any case) be an impeachable offense, Republicans shouldn’t be tempted.

And as you may have noticed, the latest midterm shellacking seems to have only energized Obama, who is on a tear. He finally called for Internet neutrality — setting off the usual suspects. He got China to agree to a major climate change pact — Chinese communists being an easier sell on carbon emissions than American Republicans. And now, as soon as he returns from his Asia trip, it’s apparently on to immigration, which Obama had put off as a favor to shaky Democratic Senate candidates, like Colorado’s own Mark Udall, many of whom — like Colorado’s own Mark Udall — lost anyway.

The funniest part of this is that Republicans have been asking Obama to hold off so they could have time to do something about immigration in the new Congress. You may remember the current Congress, in which the Senate passed immigration reform with 68 votes and the House has done … nothing. That’s because the bill, if it had come to a vote in the House, would have passed, and that would have meant a victory for Obama.

At the time, Boehner explained his inaction by saying he wouldn’t trust Obama — the Deporter In Chief — to enforce the law. Now he’s saying that if Obama acts without Congress that Republicans will be so miffed that they’ll never pass an immigration bill.

So, if you’re asking why Boehner would trust Obama now or why anyone should think Republicans are on the verge of handing Obama a victory now, you have a great sense for the obvious.

Yes, the elephant in the room is, in fact, the elephant in the room. And, of course, whatever Obama does, House Republicans could decide to vote now on the Senate bill, and that would become the law. Or they could vote, at any time, on another bill. And if they could get it through the Senate and get Obama’s signature, that would become the law. Obama’s executive orders would become moot.

In any case, the way I understand it, Obama would basically be setting priorities for which immigrants could be deported. Democrats have consulted experts who say that is within the presidential powers as granted by, you know, Congress. Some conservative law experts disagree.

And so, we can expect lawsuits. We can expect outrage. We can also expect life to be better for maybe half the immigrants here without papers. And we can expect this to be a major issue in the 2016 presidential race. Guess which side is delighted by that prospect.

[ Torero y Toro by Ricardodaforce.]

Littwin: In the Senate, mature or ambitious, not both

peterpan 2

This won’t surprise you, but the story of Cory Gardner’s ascent to the Senate and to national prominence is already being rewritten, in the way these things always are.

Chriz Cillizza, the (rightly) renowned Mr. Fix of the Washington Post, has declared Gardner the best candidate in the midterm elections (as good a choice as any) for his win over Mark Udall.

But then Cillizza gets a little carried away. He also writes that Democrats underestimated Gardner (wrong), that they thought he’d be “a fire-breathing social conservative” (wrong) and that when attacked on personhood, Gardner “stayed totally focused on his own message” (actually, he countered with his strangely effective support of over-the-counter birth control pills).

Gardner admitted to Stephanopoulos that there was no chance to repeal Obamacare with Obama as president. Yet he voted 50 times for repeal in the House.

Meanwhile, Rob Witwer, the former Republican state representative who co-wrote the book on how Democrats won control of Colorado politics, writes in The Weekly Standard that Gardner won the race on issues and ideas. I know. What issues? What ideas? The 99 percent? The OTC? That he invented Colorado’s green economy? That federal personhood is not personhood? Sadly, as Witwer must know, this race was basically issue-free on both sides.

But as the quote goes: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” So we now have the purple superhero/human sunbeam who, as Cillizza (rightly) points out, is suddenly a potential force in national Republican politics.

And it’s his own rewrite — the one we’ve seen in action since Gardner joined the Senate race — that really matters.

If you watched him Sunday with George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week, you saw Gardner — who has been rated as the 10th most conservative Republican in a Congress full of House crazies — as the sensible moderate calling for comity and for compromise and who came out as anti-shutdown and pro-immigration reform.

He got a few headlines in warning his fellow Republicans that they had to govern “maturely” and “with competence” unless they wanted to be hammered in 2016 the way that Democrats were hammered last week.

It was a good performance – a continuation of his good campaign. But the question is: Is it a performance he can maintain?

Here’s the problem. Gardner has always been a moderate in his rhetoric. That — along with his ability to avoid answering tough questions — was the key to his victory. He may have a right-wing voting record, but no Tancredo-like, or Beauprez-like, quotes to live down. He has always explained his record by saying he voted as his district would want him to. But now that he represents a very purple state, will he vote any differently?

There are very few Republican moderates in the Senate — less than a handful. The cynical take on Gardner is that, in his world, ambition trumps ideology. But in this Republican Senate, being a moderate takes nerve. In fact, being a moderate is the radical position, and not necessarily a winning one.

But it’s also a position that’s begging for a champion — a young senator who’s not Ted Cruz and not Rand Paul and who, at age 40, might suddenly have his own higher ambitions.

Let’s say that Gardner, representing a state with a significant Latino population, decided to go all in on immigration reform. Let’s say that, maybe in concert with Michael Bennet, he came out with a bill something like the one the Senate passed this year — one that doesn’t insist that “a path to citizenship” be called “amnesty.” Let’s say it’s a bill that Barack Obama would sign. Let’s say that Gardner challenged his old colleagues in the House to step up and do the right thing.

What do you think would happen? Maybe you should ask Marco Rubio, whose support for the Senate immigration bill has left him begging for conservatives to forgive his apostasy. Do you really see Gardner as an apostate? OK, I don’t either.

And as E.J. Dionne wrote the other day, whatever hints Republicans are now offering, they aren’t likely to give Obama anything. It’s just not in their interest. If they show they can govern with a Democratic president, that gives Americans every reason to elect another Democratic president. What they’ll probably do instead is force Obama to veto bills and try to put the blame for dysfunction on him.

Gardner admitted to Stephanopoulos that there was no chance to repeal Obamacare with Obama as president. And yet, he voted 50 times for repeal in the House. How would he vote as a senator? Here’s another sample, and not-so-hypothetical, circumstance: What would Gardner do if the Senate actually votes on the personhood bill that Gardner has insisted is not a personhood bill? Those are just for starters.

Gardner is good, but he’d have to be really good to walk that line — conservative, but not too conservative; moderate, but not a dreaded RINO (Republican In Name Only). Gardner made a great gamble running for the Senate. He traded his House seat to Ken Buck and got his friend Amy Stephens to quit the race, meaning there was no primary to push him to the right. And during the campaign, Republicans were so desperate to win that no one blanched when he abandoned personhood or when he went semi-moderate on illegal immigration or when he unexpectedly became a champion of birth control.

It worked in his campaign, which is all about being elected, and when the conservative base gave Gardner all the room he needed. But how would it work in the Senate, which voters might think is presumably, or at least occasionally, about actually governing? That’s the story. And we’ve just finished the opening chapter.

Littwin: The human sunbeam and the red meat warriors

human sunbeam

Let’s try a little revisionist history — my favorite kind.

What if I were to tell you that John Hickenlooper had collected more votes in his governor’s race than Cory Gardner has in his Senate race and has a slightly bigger lead over Bob Beauprez than Gardner has over Mark Udall?

You’d be surprised, right? You’d be even more surprised to learn that it’s actually true.

By the time most people had gone to bed Tuesday night, Gardner was up 7 points and Hickenlooper was down a point, and even though Hickenlooper would pull out the victory, the narrative had been set. It wasn’t just a disaster for Democrats nationally (which it was). It was also a disaster for Democrats in Colorado (which it doesn’t seem to be, exactly; it’s more like just a really, really, really bad night).

Gardner won by playing the moderate. What have Republicans learned from the race? Boehner is already promising to bring up yet another repeal-Obamacare vote, and Cruz is promising rebellion if McConnell shows any sign of compromise with Obama.

Late Tuesday, both houses of the legislature appeared to have flipped from Democratic to Republican control, with the governor’s seat in danger. Now it looks as if Democrats will hang on to the House, probably lose the Senate and you know about Hick, meaning that the state government could look very similar to how it looked all the way back to when Hickenlooper won four years ago — Hick as governor with a split legislature.

The strangest thing is that Hickenlooper – who has spent so much time at the center of a gun-laws, sheriffs-pandering storm — is the Democrat who survives, and Udall, whose career has been basically storm-free, is the one who gets toppled.

It may not be that hard to explain, though. Udall had to run against Gardner, now the rising star of the Republican Party, whom Bloomberg writer Joshua Green calls a “purple superhero.” Meanwhile, Hickenlooper was fortunate enough to face Beauprez, who’s not a hero of any description.

If Beauprez really had a chance to beat Hickenlooper, in a race the pollsters had called a tossup at the end, he almost certainly lost it with his Blair Witch Project ad, suggesting that a Hickenlooper-led Colorado was a scary place in which to live. It didn’t pass the laugh test — and it reminded everyone that Beauprez had so little to add to the political conversation.

Gardner is now seen as a model — and rightfully so — for how a Republican can win in a purple-trending-blue state. As you no doubt heard, Gardner was once rated the 10th most conservative member of the crazy-conservative House. For context, you should know Michele Bachmann didn’t crack the top 25. So how could Gardner win with that record in Colorado against a mainstream Democrat like Udall?

Here’s my thesis: Even as Colorado has trended blue, it is still, if you look closely, an ever-so-slightly center-right state, and one in search of a Republican who fits that center-right model. They just couldn’t find one. For a decade, they couldn’t find one. We may have made fun of the constant Gardner smile — and certainly of George Will’s fawning “human sunbeam” description — but optimism and a happy-warrior style can work, especially in an off-year election, if you can just look moderate. It can even beat a Udall, whose “war on women” strategy is taking the blame. It can even win — apparently — when you duck and dodge every hard question about your record.

But this is a rare find. If you look at the other House Republicans on that top 10 list, it’s all red meat, faux-populism, anti-government, pro-impeachment talk. Gardner, meantime, is the conservative voter with the moderate rhetoric who frustrates oppo-research guys looking for any incendiary quote to pin on him. For Gardner, it has always been attitude over ideology, and when Obama is 14 points underwater in your state, and Republicans are winning across the country, that was enough for Gardner to break Colorado Republicans’ decade-long, top-of-the-ticket losing streak.

The question is whether Republicans can learn from this lesson. And let me jump in here to be among the first to guess that the answer is no. You don’t make models based on exceptionalism. How long have Republicans been waiting for the next Reagan? What conservative would get the winking approval of his base to run as a moderate (ask Romney or McCain)?

Beauprez is a different — the Republican who warns of a coming civil war, of creeping Sharia and of sheep-like voters who would line up for microchip implants (yes, microchip implants). I was there at the Pueblo debate to see Beauprez basically accuse Hickenlooper of responsibility for the murder of his friend Tom Clements. Beauprez was booed that night and still he came up with the Evan Ebel ad for his closing argument. The takeaway is that Beauprez couldn’t absorb the Gardner lesson while running in the same state at the same time.

And they don’t seem to have learned it in Washington, either. The word from Congress is that John Boehner has promised to bring up yet another repeal-Obamacare vote as soon as the session opens next year. And that Ted Cruz has warned Mitch McConnell that he’ll line up his Cruzites — you can expect newly elected Thom Tillis and Tom Cotton to join the team — if McConnell shows any sign of compromise with Obama.

We can agree this election was a huge defeat for Obama and a huge defeat for Democrats and a huge win for Gardner. But let’s agree, too, that it would portend something yet again if, two years from now, the unlikely purple superhero were named Cruz or Paul or Rubio or Bush or Perry or Walker or Jindal.