How Donald Trump Changed the GOP Debate on Immigration

AP Photo/Jim Cole

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waves as he arrives at a house party Tuesday, June 30, 2015, in Bedford, New Hampshire. 

Here's how the immigration issue was supposed to play out for Republicans in the 2016 presidential campaign. During the pre-primary period and into the initial wave of voting, the candidates would tell voters how tough they'll be on undocumented immigrants, talking about building fences and enhancing border security. Then, as a likely nominee emerged, he'd begin to use a more welcoming rhetoric in the hopes of winning back the Hispanic general election voters who were alienated by what had happened before. He might not shift his actual policy position—which for nearly all the candidates comes down to "Secure the border first, then maybe we can talk about comprehensive reform"—but he would definitely shift his tone.

Then along came Donald Trump. In his very first appearance as a candidate, Trump went on an extended riff about the criminality of Mexicans who come to the United States, from which he has not backed down since. And at least some Republican primary voters have decided that unlike those spineless politicians, Trump speaks for them.

This weekend, I appeared on C-SPAN's "Washington Journal" to talk about the presidential campaign, and if the entirely unscientific sample of those weird enough to want to call in to that show at 8:30 am on a Sunday is any indication, Trump has some sincere support among the Republican electorate. In fact, nearly every caller on the Republican line (C-SPAN offers different call-in numbers for Republicans, Democrats, and independents) wanted to sing Trump's praises. Most of them didn't sound like cleverest of fellows (the one who referred to the "unlegals" taking over his hometown was particularly colorful), but there's no doubt that Trump is speaking to some real desires within the Republican electorate.

While his comments about the entirely fictional Mexican immigrant crime wave may have cost him many of the media and endorsement deals that sustain his fame (NBC, Univision, Macy's, Serta, and NASCAR have all cut their ties with him), it sure looks like Trump's particular brand of vulgar straight talk has vaulted him to the top tier of Republican candidates, with recent polls showing him competing with Jeb Bush for first place. Granted, he and Bush are both averaging only around 13 percent in national polls. But presented with a bunch of candidates who say that we need to secure the border, and one candidate who wants to build a 2,000-mile long wall and says Mexicans who come to the United States are drug dealers and rapists, more than a few Republican voters are attracted to the latter.

And where does that leave the other candidates—one of whom will, unlike Trump, actually be the Republican nominee? 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 errrr, grrrr, just angry all the time," said Jeb Bush.

There's no question that the "errrr, grrrr" has a constituency within the party—that's how many Republicans feel when it comes to immigration, and they want a candidate who can reflect that feeling back at them. But it's possible that at the end of this episode, the candidates will look around and find that this change in tone hasn't hurt them all that much. If that ends up being the case, Trump could have done them a favor.

Think about it this way: Trump's remarks were so vulgar that any candidate who wants to look like a reasonable person has little choice but to reject them. And if they all do it (or almost all), then at least for a while they've sidestepped what many of us expected to see during the primaries: a competition for who could talk the toughest on immigration. If they can maintain that mutual agreement to be as far from Trump as possible on the issue, then they might not dig themselves as big a hole as Mitt Romney and John McCain did with Hispanic voters.

That's one possibility. The other is that Hispanics are less concerned about overt expressions of hostility than they are about the fact that the GOP has stood in the way of comprehensive immigration reform, not to mention the fact that the party has years of antagonistic rhetoric on immigration to make up for. And it also wouldn't be surprising if Hispanic voters hear Trump and conclude that he's expressing his party's true sentiments, even if the other candidates are too smart to echo him.

For the moment, though, most of the GOP candidates are sounding different when they talk about immigration than they have in the past. That's a welcome development, even if we have a jackass like Donald Trump to thank for it.

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