Scott Walker berated the reporters for “obsessing” about immigration.
“You have fallen into the trap the president of the United States has done,” the Wisconsin governor snapped at the Republican Governors Association’s conclave in Boca Raton last week.
The ire of Walker and his fellow Republicans over the issue was a sign they were already ensnared by President Barack Obama’s “trap”: an executive action sparing as many as 4.1 million illegal immigrants from deportation.
Obama’s Thursday decision effectively injected the immigration issue into the 2016 presidential campaign. Now, whoever wins the White House in two years will have to decide whether to scuttle the president’s plan, potentially estranging Hispanic voters, the fastest-growing demographic group.
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From going it alone to quoting scripture to focusing on a policy that has tripped up Republicans for years, Obama’s announcement seemed designed to troll the GOP.
The announcement overshadowed the conference, at which the RGA wanted to showcase Republicans’ gains. Instead, the Republicans — six of whom are weighing presidential bids — wound up responding to question after question about Obama’s plans. They criticized Obama for overreach, and for not dealing with the issue when he had a Democratic House and Senate under him.
But they offered no alternatives. Walker suggested it wasn’t a big deal.
“We are actually talking about issues that people care about in our states,” Walker said, “instead of obsessing about the things you’re talking about right now, which aren’t even on the top 10 list of most Americans.”
Walker, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence said their states would consider a lawsuit against Obama for what Republicans say is an unconstitutional executive action (something Obama once agreed with). All three are weighing presidential bids.
Some in the U.S. House, which refused to take up comprehensive immigration reform after the 2012 elections, have talked about suing or at least fighting Obama even more.
Obama’s response: “To those members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill.”
Only one Republican governor and potential White House candidate, Ohio’s John Kasich, explicitly said that was a good idea.
“Let’s get working on this in a comprehensive way and settle everybody down,” Kasich said at one point. He also said that, contrary to his past position, he was “open” to the idea of a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Like other Republicans, Kasich said that Obama’s unilateral action would make bipartisan accord more difficult in Washington.
But since Republicans in Washington have resisted Obama on nearly every major policy proposal, bipartisanship on Capitol Hill — especially on immigration — already looked unlikely.
The outgoing chairman of the RGA, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, also might run for president and faulted the president’s action for hurting bipartisanship.
“A Republican Congress is going to put things on the president’s desk. And I hope the president’s willing to work with folks,” Christie said.
When asked if Congress should put an immigration bill in front of Obama, Christie didn’t answer as he was walking away.
A reporter asked Christie if his lack of an immigration proposal undercuts his criticisms of Obama.
“This is a ridiculous question,” Christie said. “Because I won’t lay out my plan if I were president that precludes me from criticizing the guy who asked for the job twice and was elected twice and who promised in 2008 that he would fix this problem when he had huge majorities in the Congress to be able to do it? He made his choice.”
Another presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, wasn’t at the conference, but he also condemned Obama’s action. Unsaid by Bush: Obama’s action resembled those made when Bush’s father was president and, before then, vice president under Ronald Reagan.
Another potential GOP presidential candidate, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who actually helped pass bipartisan immigration reform that included a pathway to citizenship, condemned Obama’s action.
Obama for months said he’d act if Congress didn’t. Obama then delayed the decision until after the midterm elections, in part to help weak-kneed Democrats, who nevertheless lost in red states anyway.
So Obama sprung his “trap” at the most-opportune moment: the Latin Grammys, guaranteeing high viewership on Spanish-language Univision, where personality Jorge Ramos said via Twitter that GOP opposition could be characterized as “anti-immigrant and anti-Latino.”
The announcement took place just before Congress left town for vacation to underscore the contrast between the working executive and the do-little U.S. House, where Speaker John Boehner claimed an immigration deal, which he has never made good on, would be harder.
And it just so happened to occur just as the GOP governors convened in Boca Raton. The day before Obama’s announcement, NBC’s Meet the Press host Chuck Todd moderated a panel at the RGA and focused on immigration.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was nonplussed.
“We have an hour. We have now spent 30 minutes talking about the president breaking the law,” Jindal said to applause, adding he wanted to talk about energy and education policy.
Todd: “You don’t have to take a long time answering.”
Jindal: “You’ve asked it five times. I’ve answered it five different ways.”
Jindal — another GOP 2016 hopeful — never gave a specific alternative to the president’s proposal.
The next day, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour took a shot at Todd as he hosted a panel of governors and boasted he wouldn’t ask about immigration. Incoming Texas Gov. Greg Abbott talked about it anyway.
Barbour later told reporters that the RGA conference was to “celebrate our governors” and their policies.
“To the degree that you try to make the whole thing about immigration, it’s irksome,” Barbour said. “It’s taking our eye off why we’re here. That’s what y’all want to talk about. If y’all want to talk about it, go somewhere else.”
But swing-state Florida, with one of the largest Hispanic and immigrant populations, is one of the places where Republicans might need to talk about immigration the most.
The GOP’s failure and inability to do so is just another sign that they’ve helped make the “trap” that Obama set for them.