(Photo: Ron Sachs/CNP via AP Images)
Former Governor Rick Perry (Republican of Texas) speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Gaylord National at National Harbor, Maryland on Friday, February 27, 2015.
If you want to understand the challenge Republicans face in their two goals for the next two years—to keep their control of Congress from turning into a disaster, and to win back the White House—all you have to do is look at the way they've handled the issue of immigration. They've spent the last few years trying to find their way to a coherent policy consensus that helps, not hurts, their electoral fate in the near and far future. It isn't as though no Republicans have any ideas. But every time it comes up, they just seem to be digging themselves into a deeper hole.
The explanation has to do with where the party's center of gravity lies. As Tom Schaller details in his new book The Stronghold: How Republicans Captured Congress But Surrendered the White House, the GOP's agenda, image, and character are now largely determined by its representatives in Congress, and more specifically, its House members. Whereas the Democrats used to have a stranglehold on the House while Republicans had an advantage in presidential elections, we now see the reverse: Republicans hold a structural advantage in congressional districts (a product of both gerrymandering and where Americans of different ideologies choose to live), while Democrats start presidential campaigns with a leg up.
And in the House, the typical Republican is one who hails from a conservative district, has constituents who are overwhelmingly white, and only worries about a challenge from the right. He may understand full well what party leaders mean when they say that the GOP needs to reach out to Latinos, and that comprehensive immigration reform has to be a part of that process. But when he goes home, he gets an earful from constituents who want him to know how ticked off they are about the foreign tide coming across the border and changing the character of their America.
So look what happened just in the last few days. On Capitol Hill, House Republicans demanded that continued funding for the Department of Homeland Security be tied to a reversal of President Barack Obama's executive actions on deferred deportations for undocumented immigrants. Senate Republicans were prepared to fund the Department of Homeland Security and hold a separate vote protesting the president's immigration actions, but that wasn't good enough for Republicans in the House, who want no compromise in their effort to strike back at Obama. Fifty-two of them revolted against Speak John Boehner's attempt to fund DHS for three weeks, evidently believing that was too long to wait for another shutdown showdown; now we'll be doing it again at the end of this week.
Meanwhile, just a few miles away, Republican presidential hopefuls were telling conservative activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference of their unadulterated zeal for "securing the border." Rick Perry, former governor of the Lone Star State, repeated one of his favorite rootin'-tootin' lines, about how he told Barack Obama, "If you won't secure the border, Texas will." (Perry has been saying that for a while, yet he managed to leave office without actually securing the border.) Senator Marco Rubio, who not only used to be a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform but just three years ago proposed his own version of the DREAM Act, has seen the light. He told CPAC the crowd that figuring out what to do about the undocumented immigrants who are already here is all well and good, "But what I've learned is you can't even have a conversation about that until people believe and know—not just believe but it's proven to them—that future illegal immigration will be controlled." So he, too, now says that securing the border first is the most important thing.
Fresh from his successful appearance at CPAC, Scott Walker appeared on Fox News Sunday yesterday, where he was questioned on the fact that he used to support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but no longer does. "My view has changed. I'm flat-out saying it," he said, adding, "We need to secure the border."
Walker may be wondering why his change of heart should be a big deal, because the truth is that most of the 2016 candidates have at one time or another said positive things about a path to some kind of legal status for the undocumented. But with one exception, they've now agreed that the answer to any question about immigration is "Secure the border first." Which is a way of saying that we shouldn't actually do much of anything, forever.
You may have noticed that you never hear a Republican describe exactly what a "secure" border would look like. Zero undocumented immigration? Fences across all 1,933 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border? The Border Patrol's budget has doubled over the last decade, even as the number of illegal crossings plunged after the Great Recession. But no matter what happens, Republicans can always say that we can't have comprehensive reform yet, because the border is not secured.
Rubio shouldn't feel alone either, because there's a time-honored tradition of Republican candidates changing their position on immigration once they enter the presidential race. Mitt Romney once supported a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants; by the time his 2012 campaign came around, he was talking about "self-deportation," a euphemism for making life so miserable for them that they'd return to the countries they fled from. Before running for president in 2008, John McCain wrote a comprehensive reform bill; during the campaign, he declared his opposition to his own bill.
The only Republican candidate who seems unwilling to jump with both feet into the quadrennial immigration pander-fest is Jeb Bush. Whether out of conviction or the calculation that he has gone way too far to flip-flop now, Bush still maintains his support for a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants. But he, too, has moved right: He once supported a path to complete citizenship, but no longer does.
That doesn't mean his opponents won't go after him on the issue, and hard. All the candidates know that for Republican primary voters, immigration is a cultural issue, every bit as much as abortion or gay marriage. The question is whether the eventual nominee can get through the primary telling Republican voters he sees America the same way they do without telling general election voters—both the growing Latino population and moderate voters as a whole—that his perspective is dramatically different from theirs. Previous nominees couldn't do it, and with congressional Republicans waging an endless battle with the president over the immigration issue, it's going to be hard for the next nominee to fare much better.