More than a few Republican graybeards are panicking about how the rise of Donald Trump is pulling at the seams of the GOP’s big tent. However, the Republican establishment itself has played a big role in creating this particular Frankenstein’s monster.
In September 2014, I found myself in Lexington, Nebraska, population 10,230. I was at a campaign stop with the soon-to-be-elected junior senator from Nebraska, and it seemed as if voters in this small town wanted to talk about one issue in particular. Just a few weeks earlier—right before school was to start—the federal government had showed up in Lexington and dropped off 11 unaccompanied Central American children who had been scooped up in the recent border crisis. The handoff was done with little warning and without any apparent concern about how the folks in a small town with a small budget and limited resources were going to take care of these kids. The Obama White House’s lawless immigration policy had created an avoidable humanitarian crisis, and heartland voters were being given no choice but to deal with the consequences.
Despite the very real pain and costs associated with decades of federal neglect of immigration policy, both parties have treated voters’ legitimate concerns about the issue with disdain.
It’s easy to see why voters have become radicalized on the issue. Republicans have long mouthed platitudes about enforcing immigration laws, with little to no follow-through. Democrats, eager to play identity politics, argue that border controls are essentially racist. And it doesn’t help that the left-leaning media, which have been masterfully manipulated by Trump, view all worries about immigration as the last gasp of a nativist underclass in a country where the demographics are rapidly and inexorably changing.
Unfortunately for Republicans, voter demographics are changing. One such change is that white American voters are increasingly voting Republican, and this is creating some pressure to turn the party into something that is genuinely nativist rather than a party unfairly perceived as such. After all, as National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru recently pointed out, given the vagaries of Electoral College math, Mitt Romney could have done 40 points better among Hispanic voters and still not garnered the votes to win in 2012. By contrast, had Romney done just 4 points better among white voters, the White House would have been his.
For Republican campaign types, the easiest path to victory might appear to be finding ways to stir up white voters. But if white identity politics looks like how the GOP might win the White House in the short term, it’s bad news for America in the long term. The party of Lincoln has been the one that understands our nation’s failures and triumphs are linked to our ability to adhere to the principles of individual liberty above race and class divisions.
In the meantime, for Republicans alarmed by the prospect of Trump claiming the Republican mantle in Cleveland next summer, one way to take the wind out of his sails would be to try to unite the party behind a credible immigration policy. And since the GOP controls Congress, they could start on the issue tomorrow. It need not be a radical agenda; it should simply be one that takes the issue of enforcement seriously and is backed by a credible commitment that it will be enacted. After congressional Republicans go on the offensive and Obama vetoes a few bills in areas of bipartisan agreement such as tougher border security, perhaps GOP primary voters won’t be as inclined to turn to party outsiders to see their concerns addressed.
Similarly, the other Republican presidential hopefuls can seize the opportunity Trump has created to talk about immigration and do so frankly. Where Trump’s rhetoric on the issue is little more than pandering, articulating tough but realistic policies would make Trump look small by comparison. Unfortunately, the supposedly serious GOP candidates haven’t offered voters enough substance to distinguish themselves from Trump.
Based on recent election results, Republicans shouldn’t fear addressing immigration head-on. A large percentage of Hispanic voters are more receptive to the GOP’s message of economic opportunity and traditional values than they are in favor of open borders. In 2014, Georgia senator David Perdue and governor Nathan Deal each won more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote while holding tough positions on illegal immigration. Arizona governor Doug Ducey and Texas governor Greg Abbott did more than 5 points better than their GOP predecessors with Hispanics. It helps that Republicans have also elected impressive Hispanic pols, such as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Susana Martinez, and Brian Sandoval.
Until the GOP establishment convinces voters it’s serious about immigration, Trump will dominate the debate. That’s because Trump is saying something voters want to hear on an issue the Republican party has been needlessly afraid to address.