Ronald Reagan pulled off a great performance as president of the United States. All those years in the movies came in handy. Yet, it must be acknowledged that, even without careers in Hollywood, members of the current cast of Republicans are no slouches when it comes to playacting.
I’m not talking about the professional entertainers, such as Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, who are paid big money for their florid melodramatics. Nor do I mean the party’s hilarious clown corps, the laugh-a-minute buffoons Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Louie Gohmert. I mean the true thespians – Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House John Boehner, as well as understated players such as South Dakota Sen. John Thune and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield.
These are actors who can suspend disbelief and make crass artifice seem sincere. Currently, they are playing outraged defenders of the Constitution and disappointed champions of bipartisanship. Faced with President Obama’s imminent announcement that he is unilaterally freezing deportations of several million undocumented immigrants, Republican leaders are taking the stage to spout grand soliloquies of condemnation: The president is exercising power like an autocrat, undermining the republic and usurping the power of the legislative branch.
Interspersed with the outraged orations, there are dewy-eyed pleas: Just work with us, Mr. Obama, just sit down and talk things over and we can solve the immigration problem together. It is a mark of their superb dramatic skills that Republicans can say these things and keep a straight face.
They rise above the reality that both Reagan and his successor, George H.W. Bush, issued executive orders on immigration that were quite similar in scope and effect to what Obama is proposing. In those instances, there were no Republicans rushing to the spotlight to declare the man in the White House a dictator and call for his impeachment.
And, as they express their eagerness for bipartisan compromise, there is nary a blush on the cheek of those who have spent six years opposing even the most uncontroversial idea emanating from the Oval Office. A casual member of the audience would never know these same people have been scheming against the Obama presidency with more determination than Brutus and Cassius showed in taking down Julius Caesar.
It may or may not be wise -- or even legal -- for Obama to push his executive authority this far (although, obviously, other presidents have done it). Many Democrats want him to postpone his immigration order so they can get a few last things done in the lame-duck session of Congress. But, having suffered through the shabby show of Democratic candidates running away from him during the just-completed election campaign, the president may not be in the mood to do them any favors. And he is understandably skeptical of pledges of comity coming from the same Republicans who made “Stop Obama” their singular goal from Day One.
Chiming in from the wings, Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal characterized Obama’s intransigence as a childish “temper tantrum.” But, if Obama’s cool demeanor qualifies as a tantrum, what do we make of a drama queen like Speaker Boehner who has angrily pledged to fight Obama “tooth and nail.” Boehner grimly warns that the president will ruin any chance of getting immigration legislation if he doesn’t back down. This is a gutsy performance from the man who could have gotten a truly bipartisan, Senate-passed immigration bill through the House and to the president’s desk at any moment in the last couple of years simply by allowing a vote – a vote that never happened because Boehner did not want to risk a riot among the anti-immigrant radicals in his caucus.
Sure, Republicans could be called crassly disingenuous, but, in theatrical terms, they deserve credit for adding an audacious new layer of artifice to a well-worn script. The president can be forgiven, however, for not applauding.