A version of this column appeared originally on THE DAILY BEAST.
With Rick Perry suddenly pushing a flat tax and Herman Cain substantively revising his popular 9-9-9 revenue plan, GOP candidates may finally refocus their feverish, fatuous immigration obsession, dropping an issue emphasis that’s destructive, distracting, demented and downright dumb.
Why spend a wildly disproportionate amount of energy exploring an issue that few voters consider a top priority (and where all Republican candidates fundamentally agree), rather than emphasizing real differences on the economic and budgetary perspectives that will decide the election?
Listening to the toxic trash-talk at the Las Vegas debate, or watching attack ads that have already turned up on the internet, one might assume that the public viewed illegal immigration as the greatest challenge facing our civilization and believed that the fate of the Republic hinged on Mitt Romney’s past reliance on a lawn-service company that hired undocumented workers.
Actually, no major poll of the last year–no, not one of them—shows robust public interest in the subject of immigration. This month, CBS News asked an open-ended question in which respondents named “the most important problem facing this country today.” Less than 2 percent named “illegal immigration” and a dozen other concerns (led by “the economy and jobs” of course) finished higher on the list. Over the summer, surveys from Bloomberg and Fox News found 3 percent and 2 percent, respectively, who identified immigration as a priority, with gas prices, the war in Afghanistan, health care, the deficit, education, and even nebulous concerns like “partisan politics” and “moral values” more frequently mentioned by the public.
Moreover, dire worries over immigration have unequivocally receded in recent months, perhaps in response to vastly improved border enforcement (under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama), sharply reduced unauthorized entries into the country, and literally hundreds of thousands of illegal residents returning to their home countries due to a lack of jobs in the United States and aggressive federal deportation programs (with a record 400,000 apprehended and removed). The impassioned activists who stress the issue have become less vocal and far less visible. The once-heralded “Minute Men” movement of border-guarding vigilantes has all but disappeared, wrecked by internal bickering, financial scandals and the murder conviction of one prominent leader.
But Republican presidential candidates still talk as if immigration hardliners will decide crucial primary battles – ignoring the fact that they never did. As a rallying cry for conservatives, the get-tough-on-illegals mantra flopped miserably in 2008 in both the general election and Republican primaries. Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo made angry resistance to unauthorized immigrants the centerpiece of his presidential campaign (“If you want to call me a single issue candidate, that’s fine” he told the Conservative Political Action Committee) but gained no traction anywhere and dropped out before the Iowa Caucuses. His colleague, California Representative Duncan Hunter also stressed immigration concerns and drew only 1% in Iowa.
Meanwhile, the underfunded and over-aged John McCain, a notorious moderate on immigration who had previously supported a path to legalization for the undocumented, won 31 primaries or caucuses, prevailing decisively even in immigration-sensitive states on the Mexican border like California, New Mexico, Texas and his home base of Arizona.
Why would ranting against illegals work any better for presidential candidates in 2012 than in 2008, when all available public opinion surveys show public concern over the issue has been reduced, not intensified?
Mitt Romney in particular should have learned from his own baleful experience, since he wasted millions in Iowa last time trying to clobber his rival Mike Huckabee as “soft” on illegal immigration. He attacked the former Arkansas Governor in TV ads and televised debates for once supporting a proposal (ultimately defeated in the legislature) for in-state tuition breaks for children who had been brought to the country without authorization. Though he outspent his opponent by a ratio of ten-to-one, the former Massachusetts governor lost badly in Iowa (34% to 25%). It makes no sense at all for Romney (a vastly improved candidate in most other respects) to try to use the same feeble issue as a club against Rick Perry (who’s doing a fine job clubbing himself with his endless series of verbal gaffes). Even on an ideological basis, the whole question of in-state tuition is unequivocally a state issue and not a federal question for any prospective president to decide or debate.
The current immigration fixation on the campaign trail not only steals attention from vastly more significant and viable themes (like job creation and runaway federal spending) but also portrays the Republican Party as deeply divided and hopelessly out of touch with mainstream concerns. Aside from the embarrassing discussion about Mitt Romney’s lawn care service, the candidates don’t really differ on immigration policy. The next time one of the leading contenders gets a question or a challenge on the subject the right response would emphasize that agreement. It’s easy to imagine Romney, Cain, Perry, Bachmann, Gingrich, Huntsman, or even Ron Paul (if not Rick Santorum) affirming a clear and unanimous (and, one hopes, sane) Republican approach.
Imagine the relief and excitement if one of the candidates simply declared, “I don’t want to spend much time on this issue because all of us here on this stage agree on the essentials. We want better, stronger, border enforcement, tougher measures to stop employers from hiring illegals, and an aggressive effort to make sure that people who’ve entered our country without permission don’t get rewarded with welfare benefits that they don’t deserve and we can’t afford. But we also believe that there needs to be a sweeping repair of our broken immigration system to allow people who want to become Americans and play by the rules, speaking English and paying taxes and honoring our flag, to get their chance to prove themselves and embrace the American dream. But the only way to give them that chance is to get our economy moving again, so let’s talk about recovery—which is the real concern of every American, including immigrants.”
It ought to be obvious that this approach would work better with the public than Herman Cain’s odd “joke” about a twenty-foot-high fence with a deadly electrical current. Dropping the inflammatory and pointlessly divisive tone on immigration would not only provide a more reliable path to the GOP nomination but could also help to assure victory next November. The only way that Barack Obama’s challengers can hope to make him a one term president is to give more attention to the issues that matter by wasting less time on angry arguments that don’t.