When Congress, split seven ways from Sunday on the question, squelched legislation granting resident status for those formerly called "illegal aliens," President Obama said, in effect, so what?—we'll do it anyway.
And so he did it anyway, announcing last Friday the birth of a new immigration policy affecting an estimated 800,000 illegals. These illegals—according to the president, who invokes the right to "prosecutorial discretion"—get exempted from deportation for two years. The new policy renders them legally untouchable, in spite of their illegal status.
The situation moves beyond factuality. Up becomes down, hot becomes cold—by presidential directive, it is as if the country for whom the policy has been constructed was another nation entirely: less like the United States, more like the Wonderland in which Alice discovered the Mad Hatter, the March Hare and other self-definition experts.
The president gets to make up his own reality about rules and limits on power. "'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.'" Mr. Dumpty, meet Mr. Obama.
Not that any doubt exists as to what goes on here. An election goes on. Obama wants a bumper crop of Latino votes in Florida, Virginia, Nevada and elsewhere. He thinks he knows one way to get them: namely, get off the topic of the economy and win a reputation for decisive action, as well as compassion, in an area of policy the country, let alone Congress, still hasn't figured out how to address.
The new policy has two additional advantages: It obliges Mitt Romney, at the risk of offending voters on both sides of the immigration question, to put his own cards on the table respecting treatment of illegals.
Practically speaking, despite Republican talk of a lawsuit challenging the president's right to devise and impose his own policy on immigration, the policy Obama has enacted has only a short distance to gallop without constitutional fodder. If it lasts until Election Day, that's good enough. Let it go at that point.
It's not only possible, but it's also desirable that the president take some well-deserved raps for wiping his feet on general understandings of the limits on presidential powers. However, the number of raps he actually receives is unlikely to be large. The commentators and bloggers who drive our national conversation in the Internet era understand that this matter doesn't turn on constitutional and political science considerations, rather—as they know—it turns on political necessity.
Somewhat more to the point, it fits the modern style of discourse and action: Don't respect rules, procedures and formulas; get out in front—just do what it takes, and when critics try to pull you back, either pretend they're nuts or that you haven't heard them.
It's the age of personal expression after all—no fooling around with the unenlightened. Just do it. Which was, come to think of it, the classic expression of the 1960s ethos of protest and direct action: Don't ask questions—do it. Good old Jerry Rubin stuck the exhortation on the dust jacket of his book purporting to explain the ethic of get-out-my-way-everybody.
Rules? Laws? Constitutions? Precedents? It's just leftover garbage, all of it, from the historic tyranny of dead white male fascist pigs. The kids of the counterculture would show us what to do: namely, fight the cops; take over the dean's office; make love, not war; burn down the ROTC building; and instruct professors and parents as to their native stupidity.
The habit of defiance turns out to be fun, the way loose, rule-less ways of doing business always starts out as fun. The habit grows and spreads, of course, spoiling older notions of respect and restraint and duty. The end comes to justify the means. The culture—as a whole—sneezes, catches cold, and comes at last to redefine its motives and pastimes as personal: none of anybody else's business.
"'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master—that's all."
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William Murchison is a corresponding editor of Chronicles and the author of The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson (ISI) and Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity. William Murchison, syndicated columnist and longtime commentator on religious, cultural, and political affairs, has contributed to many national publications, including the Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, and First Things.