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.