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Associated Press
President Obama cautiously endorsed a new Senate blueprint on immigration reform Tuesday in a speech at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas.

Obama should stand back on immigration

A few months before the election, President Obama famously told a roomful of donors that “if we’re successful in this election, when we’re successful in this election, that the fever may break, because there’s a tradition in the Republican Party of more common sense.”

Obama did win the election. But asked by the New Republic whether he was seeing much movement on that whole fever-breaking thing, his answer was dryly honest. “Not yet, obviously.”

By and large, Washington isn’t gripped by fever. It’s gripped by actual disagreements and mismatched incentives. Republicans really do disagree with Obama on taxes. And most Republicans in the Senate and the House really do come from increasingly conservative districts that didn’t vote for Obama. When you stack substantive disagreement atop a strategic incentive to disagree, you get Washington in 2013.

But – and this is key – Republicans weren’t behaving irrationally. They were behaving rationally. And that’s exactly why they might cut a deal on immigration even as they fight Obama on taxes.

Two numbers explain why a rational Republican Party needs to do something dramatic on immigration: 27 percent and 2 percent.

Twenty-seven percent is the percentage of the Latino vote Mitt Romney received in 2012, according to the exit polls. Two percent is the projected increase in the nonwhite electorate come 2016. So Republicans are losing badly among Hispanic voters, and Hispanic voters are an increasingly important part of the electorate.

Those numbers supply the raw political case for acting on immigration. But the other side is the substantive case: A lot of elected Republicans simply want to do something on immigration. This isn’t like taxes, where almost every elected Republican has sworn to fight any and all tax increases.

The last major effort at immigration reform came in 2007, under President George W. Bush. The key Republican legislator on that bill was Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who would go on to be the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2008.

Support for comprehensive immigration reform is by no means unanimous within the Republican Party. Bush’s immigration reforms, for instance, fell before a conservative backlash. But some of the key conservatives behind that backlash have since changed their minds.

So on this issue, Republicans have both strategic and substantive reasons for making a deal. The question for the Obama administration is how to keep them from developing reasons for opposing whatever particular deal the Obama administration proposes. And the answer, in a way, is obvious: The Obama administration should stay out of the deal-making as much as possible.

Republicans will fight almost anything Obama proposes. This is, again, not because they’re sick but because they run in primaries and represent districts and states where their constituents want them to fight anything overly associated with the Obama administration.

This is a frustrating fact of life for the Obama administration – and perhaps even a sick commentary on how our political system works – but it is, nevertheless, a fact: Its involvement polarizes issues. And it’s not unique to them. Presidential involvement in general polarizes issues. By staying out, at least for now, the Obama administration is making it easier for Republicans to stay in.