Jonathan Chait wrote, Hillary Clinton Sets an Immigration Trap for Republicans. This is in reference to her full throated support for immigration reform and promise to do even more regarding the issue than President Obama has. Chait thinks it is quite a brilliant move, and I agree. It has the added benefit of being something that no one can doubt Clinton actually believes in. What I don’t quite follow is this continued narrative that somehow the Republicans had an opportunity to “take immigration off the issue table” after the 2012 election. That just isn’t true.
What the Republicans had was the opportunity to do something about immigration. But what they were willing to do only made them look worse. I’ve been writing about this for years, Republican Control of Congress Will Not Rebrand Them. When the Senate passed an immigration bill it had a staggering 13 year — best case scenario — pathway to citizenship. But even that was too much for the House, which increased it to 18 years — and then wouldn’t even vote for it. I just don’t see that it would do the Republicans much good to say to the Latino community, “We’re going to do this one thing for you, and we really resent doing it, so don’t ever ask for anything ever again!” I think that’s probably worse than doing nothing at all.
According to Chait, the Republican plan is to not talk about immigration during the primary and then in the general election to not sound too awful. That strikes me as a pretty lame strategy. To start with, the conservative base shares a myth. They all believe that fixing immigration is the same as fixing just about any problem: easy. According to their mythology, the only reason people get into the country illegally is because we allow them to. If only the president put his foot down and somehow willed it, there would be no more undocumented immigrants. The fact that most undocumented immigrants came here legally and overstayed their visas doesn’t matter in the least.
The main point is that conservative voters want to hear how “hard” their candidates are going to be. They don’t want nuance. They don’t even want solutions. They want aggressive rhetoric. So they are not going to allow the Republican Party to get all the way through the primaries without getting a bidding war between the candidates. “I see your self-deportation and raise you a special immigration force that will go through immigrant areas with flame throwers.” If the Republican Party were in control of this kind of thing, it would have done something about the problem long ago. But the primary appeal of the Republican Party is that it is against “those people.” Otherwise, their old white voter base might as well go with the Democrats who are at least competent.
There is a bigger problem. No Republican will ever support an immigration deal that is not predicated on “closing the border.” This, of course, will never happen. Given the conservative voters’ belief that it is a kind of conspiracy that anyone gets across the border, as long as anyone can get across the border, it is an excuse to do nothing. And now we have Scott Walker arguing that — far from providing a pathway to citizenship for people here illegally — we should greatly reduce legal immigration. All of this is likely to cause a feeding frenzy among the Republican candidates. Who can be the “hardest”?
This is a political mess for the Republicans, and it is of their own making. Being against any form of immigration reform is not a policy position. For the Republican primary voter, it is a necessary condition. The plan for the candidates was always to say nothing now, and then, during the general election, to make vague promises with caveats that made them meaningless. So the Republicans’ big plan was just to not be too offensive to non-white voters. And that was no plan at all.