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For GOP Would-Be Presidents, The Border Fence is 2016's Panama Canal

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

A border fence, "a fence from left to right, from east to west, except obviously the mountainous areas," as Charles Krauthammer put it, is essential to the effort to pass immigration reform.


If a serious fence along the southern border is not mandated in the bill--high, double-fencing with access roads for patrol vehicles-- it won't pass. Certainly not in the House, maybe not in the Senate. (The present Title I does nothing close to mandating a fence, but instead tasks DHS to study whether, where and when a fence should be built.)

Moreover, the amended law's sections concerning the fence has to be very detailed as to the timing of the commencement and completion of the construction, the location, and the design of the fence, with ample funding provided and the entire effort backed by "notwithstanding any other law" authority so that the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act or the National Environmental Policy Act do not obstruct construction. Citizen standing to bring suits to oblige the government to continue construction should be part of the bill. Acknowledgment that private property will be taken (and paid for) and that some communities will be disrupted must be a part of an-impossible-to-misunderstand authorization and mandate.

Senator Rubio has said he will support such an amendment. Even John McCain on my program Wednesday, said he would, though he does not think it wise.

The exchange on border fencing with Senator McCain is below. That the senator's agreement was so long in coming is the problem with border security: The people fashioning the bill really don't want what the people they represent really do want, and they keep trying to substitute alternatives or ambiguity for the real deal --the real fence, one extending most of the border, one like the fence in San Diego which worked.

That calculated ambiguity or bait-and-switch won't work. Any bill that tries to "reform immigration" without really fencing the border will not pass, nor should it. At a very important level, the debate on the fence has become a proxy for a debate over whether the government will actually represent the people it governs.


At least four GOP senators are said to be considering a run for the presidency: Senators Ayotte, Cruz, Paul and Rubio. The one of them that proposes an amendment mandating a border fence that satisfies the outline above will have acted to implement widely held beliefs among the core of his or her party and will thus gain an enormous advantage in the run-up to 2016 by demonstrating an ear for the concerns of the vast middle of the country --just as Ronald Reagan did with the Panama Canal Treaty. Deafness to this genuine concern will greatly injure any of these senators' standing with the center-right. Opposition to border fencing will do significant damage to any ambition for higher office. The fence is not just a marker on the border and a barrier to those who want to enter the country illegally. It is a marker and a barrier in GOP presidential politics.

Here's the back-and-forth with Senator McCain (full transcript here):

HH: I think that the key to getting Republican support in the House is to mandate the timing, the design, the location, and the construction of a double sided fence for hundreds, if not thousand plus miles. Charles Krauthammer said on this show last week, from east to west, from left to right, except for the mountains. Why not do that and get those 90% of the conservatives who just want to see a fence that if Hezbollah heads north, they’re at least going to have to slow down a bit?

JM: Well, one of the things, aspects of this that has changed, and if there’s anything coming out of the Iraq war that’s good, is that thanks to General Petraeus, I think the smartest general certainly of my generation, we have now developed technology, a radar called Vader Radar. And I’m not against; by the way, in fact, part of it, of our bill, demands dramatic increase in fencing. But with surveillance, we can apprehend these people. Most of the border, not all of it, but most of the border, there are long distances between the border and the first place they can get to where a major highway or a town or a city. With this radar, which by the way, tracks people back to where they came from, if you can believe that, that was developed because they were trying to stop the IED’s. This radar detects people planting the IED’s, and then tracks them back to where they came from. But with that kind of technology and drones, we need 24 hour, seven days a week, drone coverage of the entire border. We can intercept these people before they get to a place where they can disappear into the population. So technology is very important. A fence is only as good as the, as having people and capability around it, because obviously, somebody can just cut a hole in the fence if there’s nobody there to enforce it and to make sure it works. So I’m very big on this Vader Radar and drones, so that we can detect these people when they come across, and send out teams to intercept them rather than have a person sitting on the Sonora, Arizona border in 120 degree heat in a vehicle. You see my point?

HH: I do, but I have two responses. One is you can’t turn off a fence, and I don’t trust Democrats not to turn off the drones and the radar. I think it would have been the first thing to go in the sequester, just like the FAA. I just don’t trust them. But number two, why not do both, because politically, if you guys mandate the fence, you win this. I think it’s over if you mandate the fence, it actually has to be built, and it’s such a relatively inexpensive gesture, it’s the outward expression of an inward resolve concerning border security. If an amendment mandating construction design and funding comes forward, and notwithstanding any other law language, Senator, will you support it?

JM: Again, I’d have to know the cost, and I would have to disagree with you to some degree. Depending upon what you mean by a fence, too. If it’s just a low barrier, barrier, that’s one thing. If you’re talking about double and triple fencing, you are talking about multi-billions of dollars in cost when you can achieve the same goal with surveillance and oversight, and not have to go to that expense. And I’ll be glad to send you information. But if it’s 50 miles from the border to the nearest highway or the nearest town, you can survey that area, and when they come across, you can intercept them. Now when it’s in San Diego, where we have built and need a triple fence, and that has changed dramatically, they now have effective control in those areas, absolutely.

HH: I am talking double fencing with access roads, and I am talking billions of dollars of construction. I know that. But to me, that’s what, you know, I’m one of these guys who was against Proposition 187 when it was in California years ago, and against the 2007 bill, and I think this is a pretty doggone good bill. But I need a fence, and I can’t support a bill without a fence. If that’s the price of getting the bill through, Senator, is it worth it to you? If you have enough colleagues…

JM: Yeah, I mean, anything to get it through. But I’d be glad, frankly, try to maybe get some of these people that have learned the lessons of Iraq to talk to you about the effectiveness of surveillance.

HH: Oh, I think it’s effective. I just think they’d turn it off.

JM: You don’t want to needlessly spend the taxpayers’ dollars on an area where it’s not needed.

HH: But Senator, they turned off the FAA towers. These Democrats will turn off anything. Why wouldn’t they turn off the surveillance?

JM: I don’t trust, you know I don’t trust them either, Hugh, but I do believe that we’re going to make it so strong in the law that they can’t avoid it. Look, I know who we’re dealing with. I’ve been asking, we’ve been asking for the names and the backgrounds of those 3,000 people that ICE people released a few weeks ago in the name of sequestration, remember that?

HH: Yes.


JM: 3,000 people. Some of them, I am told, were guilty of manslaughter, and I don’t know if it’s true or not, because we haven’t got the names, yet. So look, don’t think I trust them. It’s got to be ironclad in the law.

The border fence has to be iron-clad in the law. Republican senators face a very clear choice on this issue, one which will define them with many voters for years to come.

Not all conservatives agree with the absolute necessity for a border fence, of course, just as a few conservatives, including William F. Buckley, thought the Panama Canal Treaty a fine idea in 1978. But most conservatives opposed the treaty and the Republican most identified with opposition, Ronald Reagan, became the nominee. Here is one recollection of the debate of that era:

The Reagan-Buckley friendship endured two sharp fractures over foreign policy. The first has become legendary. In 1978, Buckley and Reagan, two paladins of the American Right, arrayed themselves on opposing sides of the Panama Canal treaties being negotiated by the Carter Administration. Buckley, who favored turning the canal over to the Panamanians, invited Reagan, opposed, to debate him on “Firing Line.” The knights had esquires: James Burnham, George Will, and Admiral Elmo Zumwalt stood with Buckley. Pat Buchanan, Roger Fontaine, and Admiral John McCain Jr., father of the senator, were with Reagan.

Interesting, right? And mostly forgotten, because politics moves on. But it was a defining debate for the GOP in 1978, like the looming debate over immigration reform will be a defining debate for the GOP in 2016. The Canal debate of 35 years ago was about national will and the Republican Party's commitment to a strong American presence in the world. The debate over immigration reform is both about inclusiveness but also about sovereignty and the control of our borders in an era of incredible threats to domestic safety. The argument over the border fence is an argument over the seriousness of the speaker's commitment to national security. If they cannot "get" the obviousness of the need for a fence, or they quibble about the cost or other minor impediments, the audience wonders if they really understand the message of The Looming Tower.


Some have argued to me that John McCain survived the immigration reform debacle of 2007 to become the GOP nominee in 2008, so Marco Rubio can swing-and-miss on immigration in 2013 without imperiling his 2016 prospects, but the 2007-8 circumstance of a Mike Huckabee arriving in Iowa, and then cutting a deal with John McCain in West Virginia while Charlie Crist delivers Florida to the Arizona senator at the last minute isn't likely to occur again, whereas the set-up for a 1980-style series of debates over big issues is looming in 2016, with a deep field including many governors and senators. The GOP needs to avoid self-immolation on immigration issues but at the same time retain its credentials on national security, and the border-fence-as-part-of-the-immigration-package is the way to sound perfect pitch.

If immigration reform passes, and no fence is built by 2016, expect every would-be nominee to remind every supporter of the "reform" of that impossible-to-miss fact.

The Senate returns from recess next week and the immigration reform bill will quickly absorb all the air in the upper chamber. (And hopefully, as Senator McCain urged in our conversation, the Speaker will be leading the House to establish a Select Committee to investigate Benghazi and Boston). The next few weeks will impact Republican presidential politics and thus national politics for years to come.

Calling Senators Ayotte, Cruz, Paul and Rubio: Do the smart thing, the right thing, and the representative thing: Build the fence.

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