The Value of Not Being the Donald on Immigration

It’s sometimes easy in retrospect to find key pivot points in a political campaign. In the 2012 Republican presidential nomination contest, there was a distinct moment when the debate over immigration policy turned hard right, and at the same time wrong-footed Rick Perry, who had originally surged into a big lead over the field posing as the belligerent voice of feral conservatism. It was in a candidate debate on September 21, 2011 (per a contemporary account from Jon Ward and Sam Stein of Huffpost):

Former Sen. Rick Santorum attacked Perry for supporting in-state tuition rates for children of illegal immigrants, drawing Perry into a back and forth on the issue.

“I would say that he is soft on illegal immigration,” Santorum said. “He doesn’t want to build a fence. He gave a speech in 2001 where he talked about binational health insurance between Mexico and Texas. I mean, I don’t even think Barack Obama would be for binational health insurance.”

Santorum called Perry “very weak on this issue of American sovereignty and protecting our borders and not being a magnet for illegal immigration.”

Perry, who has in many ways been the opposite of former President George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” said the other Republicans who opposed in-state tuition for children of illegals were heartless.

“If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart,” Perry said.

That assertion drew boos from the audience (what does “heart” have to do with a simple matter of right or wrong like obeying immigration laws?), and exposed Perry’s right flank in a way that Mitt Romney was quick to exploit–though to his own ultimate detriment after he landed on “self-deportation” as a position signaling that his hostility to the undocumented stopped just short of cattle cars.

In the current cycle, however, Paul Waldman argues at the Prospect that we may have seen a surprising and contrary pivot point via the reaction to Donald Trump’s smearing of immigrants as criminals:

This controversy has accelerated the pivot they probably didn’t think they’ve have to make for at least another six or eight months. So one after another, they’ve been asked about Trump and (with the exception of Ted Cruz) have condemned his remarks. And while some just expressed their disagreement briefly, others have taken the opportunity to present a more inclusive face of the GOP. “Hispanics in America and Hispanics in Texas, from the Alamo to Afghanistan, have been extraordinary people, citizens of our country and of our state,” said Rick Perry on ABC’s “This Week.” Mike Huckabee called immigrants from south of our border “some of the most conservative, family-oriented and faith-based people I have ever witnessed.” “Politically, we’re going to win when we’re hopeful and optimistic and big and broad rather than errrrr, grrrr, just angry all the time,” said Jeb Bush.

In other words, Trump made it politic, even in a Republican nomination contest, to say some positive things about immigration and Latinos, and better yet, made it possible for the vast GOP field (Cruz excepted) to move in tandem.

Waldman thinks this is having and could continue to have a beneficial effect on GOP attitudes on immigration policy. That could be true. On the other hand, Trump has also made it easy for candidates whose objective positions on immigration policy are quasi-nativist to seem “moderate” so long as they aren’t blaming immigrants for half the country’s problems. Indeed, the “premature pivot” on immigration Waldman is talking about could preempt a more meaningful pivot that transcends mere rhetoric about the moral qualities of Latinos and the overall impact of legal and illegal immigration on American society. And there’s certainly enough time between now and November of 2016 for voters–especially Latino voters–to discern the rather large gap between being to the left of Donald Trump and holding an acceptable opinion on immigration reform.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.