Donald Trump’s campaign web page is telling. There is a biography of the candidate, an extensive news page where his clippings are available, a store where one can buy plenty of Trump-branded merchandise, and only one issue brief, on immigration. If this is not the best illustration of his candidacy to date, I cannot think of a better one.
It reveals why Trump has had so much staying power. His personal brand has always been about winning, and his campaign’s big idea is the premise that he’ll notch some victories for America. This would be nice. As Trump is wont to say, we don’t seem to win anymore.
And the immigration issue is a hanging curveball for Republican candidates, which no other candidate (save the floundering Rick Santorum) seems willing to swing at.
Put aside Trump’s sound-byte bluster about immigration, and look only at his issue paper. One will find that many of his proposals are fairly sensible. He begins with the decidedly republican idea that immigration policy should work for the benefit of the citizenry. While it contains a few kooky notions (e.g. making Mexico pay for a border fence that we can easily afford), it mostly boils down to defensible ideas on increasing enforcement, and rejiggering our visa programs to ensure that employers are hiring as many Americans as possible.
What is so striking is that no other major candidate for president, except Santorum, has emphasized anything like this, despite the fact that many of these positions are popular -- not just with Republican voters, but the nation at large. Trump’s proposals may be blustery at points, but the Rubio-Schumer bill was an oligarchic logroll that literally gave veto authority over key policy items to the unions and the Chamber of Commerce.
Trump’s position will inevitably be tagged as nativist, which is primarily his own fault. The winning political position for conservatives is to insist on proper enforcement mechanisms and a visa program that works for the whole country, and then to deal compassionately with the people who are already here illegally – some form of legal status that falls short of citizenship. To whatever extent they constitute a public policy problem, it does not justify the draconian measure of mass deportation. Instead, conservatives should focus on fixing the system that let them in.
But Trump seems incapable of such nuance. For instance, he told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that illegal immigrants in this country “have to go,” including the DREAMers (i.e. those illegal immigrants who were brought here as children, have no criminal backgrounds, and gone to college or joined the military). This is an unequivocal loser for conservatives. The DREAMers, after all, are a small cohort who receive outsized national attention because they are a politically sympathetic group. A skillful politician would gladly compromise on the DREAMers, knowing that the real goal is to ensure that effective enforcement mechanisms take effect before any legalization.
But Trump is not a skillful politician. He is an amateur, and a vain one at that. Todd baited the hook, and Trump eagerly took a chomp. He couldn’t help himself, even though it makes him look like a nativist, not to mention a statist. How many federal police officers would be needed to track down 11 million illegal immigrants? More than I care to hire, that’s for sure.
And this is why the politics of immigration is such a mess for conservatives. There only seem to be two groups of Republican leaders interested in this issue. Lindsey Graham, John McCain, Marco Rubio, and those who endorsed Rubio-Schumer are unwilling or unable to insist upon effective enforcement before amnesty. Meanwhile, the likes of Trump and Tom Tancredo fall into obvious nativist traps set up by the left. This is especially frustrating, considering that the people who lose the most when immigration laws are outdated or unenforced are on the bottom rungs of society, i.e. those toward whom conservatives are accused of being so hateful.