Ghost of Pete Wilson Redux

At the Plum Line today Paul Waldman makes a pretty strong statement in the wake of Republican presidential candidates stampeding to call for the elimination of “birthright citizenship” (he could have added there’s a mini-stampede composed of Trump and Walker ready to talk mass deportation):

[T]his week has seen the most significant development yet in the immigration debate’s role in the 2016 election. I’d go even farther — it’s possible that the entire presidential election just got decided….

It’s possible to argue that you’re “pro-immigrant” while simultaneously saying we should build more walls and double the size of the Border Patrol. Indeed, many Republicans do, and while their argument may not be particularly persuasive, it’s not completely crazy. But you can’t say you’re pro-immigrant and advocate ending birthright citizenship. You just can’t.

Thus, says Waldman, in a scenario where it would be very difficult mathematically for a Republican to win the presidency without a pretty big improvement over Mitt Romney’s performance among Latinos, about half the field is already throwing away its best chance for victory.

He goes on to cite a Latino Decisions analysis suggesting Republicans will need 42% of the Latino vote to win even if they maintain their 2014 support levels among white voters and black turnout and Democratic support levels among black voters return to pre-Obama levels and Latino turnout is poor. Now I’m sure you can find plenty of GOP analysts who believe white turnout could go well up in 2016 and that the GOP percentage in 2014 is expandable and that many Latinos vote on the basis of issues other than immigration.

But at some point such arguments become a bit hazy and even magical, which is why the RNC wisely made improvement in GOP performance among Latinos such a high priority in its post-2012 “autopsy” report and also suggested being open to comprehensive immigration reform was a threshold issue for Latinos that could not be offset by Republican appeals on other topics.

Now if half the GOP field is playing with fire on immigration by rejecting birthright citizenship, half is not, at least so far, and it’s actually pretty unlikely that candidates like Bush, Rubio and Kasich will “go there.” Indeed, it’s possible that the Trump-generated outburst of GOP nativism will make such candidates look more “moderate” than would otherwise be the case (e.g., Jeb Bush, who has retreated from his past support for a “path to citizenship,” but still seems “pro-immigrant” as compared to the current zeitgeist).

But without question, it’s entirely reasonable to suggest that the prevailing winds within the GOP on immigration could toxify the entire GOP not just in 2016 but beyond, just as Pete Wilson did to the entire California Republican Party in the 1990s.

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.