Cynical immigration ploy working

President Obama’s decision to use an executive order to prohibit deportation of young immigrants whose families came here illegally pretty much validates my column of May 16 that said Obama is “crazy for his base.” I predicted that the president would, among other things, issue “an executive pardon for some illegal residents.” His writ on the kids is close enough for political horseshoes. I just thought it would take longer for his desperation to manifest itself. Can some of my other predictions, such as forgiving student loan debt and closure of Guantánamo, be far behind?

As I said at the time, my background as a political operative causes me to hold onto a morbid fascination with and twisted admiration for someone like Obama, who cunningly knows his base and will assertively act to capture its affection. But another side of me is disgusted with deceitful actions that smack of doing anything “just for the votes.” When I was a young and naïve strategist, I would counsel client candidates that such actions are too political and will backfire. But my experiences since and real-world polling suggest that it’s more complicated. Pandering and too-convenient U-turns are often well-received. Voters who think they will benefit from a 180-degree reversal are actually open to a change of heart. They find a politician’s pander an admirable sign that democracy actually works, not a sign that the system is rotten: “Hey, he listened to us and changed his mind to do the right thing.” 

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But there are right-thinking Americans who abhor this sort of political calculation and found the president’s actions repugnant. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, speaking on behalf of Mitt Romney, opined that Obama’s actions looked “political” and represented an “eleventh-hour” action that smacks of desperation. If the president thought this was good policy, why didn’t he raise the proposal earlier, like when he had a majority of Democrats in Congress? Pawlenty’s reasoning is sound, but most Americans aren’t going to see it that way.

The first round of polling confirms my suspicions. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of 734 likely voters polled by Selzer & Co. for Bloomberg News indicated they approve of the president’s actions in this matter. Merely 30 percent disagree. The Bloomberg survey found that independents back the president’s action by “better than a two-to-one margin.”

Hispanics, a group that could have reacted cynically, are also applauding. A Latino Decisions survey of Hispanic voters in five swing states finds that the president has juiced the “enthusiasm” of Hispanics for his reelection. Obama’s actions evidently are not being seen as either “too little” or “too late.” Obama is seemingly not just another guy in a dark suit and a red tie who will do and say anything to get reelected. Rather, he’s once again the savior of Hispanics that they first met in 2008.

Let me be very clear. I am not criticizing the substance of the decision to find a legal way forward for undocumented Hispanics. I have been a longtime critic of dopey anti-immigrant GOP rhetoric that besmirches Hispanics — those here legally as well as those not. I was the pollster for the first Hispanic elected governor of Florida, Bob Martinez, and the first Hispanic elected to the U.S. Senate, Mel Martinez (not related). 

And I understand the political math. I was the first Republican in Texas to run the numbers there, matching Hispanic and Anglo fertility rates with voter partisanship, plotting a line that will eventually bring total reversal of Republican realignment, making Democrats once again the majority party in Texas. My critics often just harrumphed. But now they might see better.

Outreach to Hispanics is needed, but GOP initiatives should be less cynical than Obama’s deceitful immigration epiphany.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.

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