In the wake of criticism that he has flip-flopped over illegal immigration, Gov. Scott Walker is now wading into the issue of legal immigration…

“In terms of legal immigration, how we need to approach that going forward is saying, we will make adjustments,” Walker said. “The next president and the next Congress need to make decisions about a legal immigration system that’s based on, first and foremost, on protecting American workers and American wages…

Walker made similar comments during an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News earlier this month.

When Hannity asked him about criticism he’s faced over immigration issues, the governor talked mainly about illegal immigration but added, “any legal immigration system we go forward with is one that ultimately has to protect American workers and make sure American wages are going up. That’s the way we prosper for every hardworking American in this country.”

Walker aides note that the governor has laid out similar positions before, pointing to his past statements linking immigration to Americans’ wages and job prospects and his previous support for more allowing in more skilled immigrants.

“Governor Walker supports American workers’ wages and the U.S. economy and thinks both should be considered when crafting a policy for legal immigration,” AshLee Strong, spokeswoman for Walker’s Our American Revival PAC said. “He strongly supports legal immigration, and like many Americans, believes that our economic situation should be considered instead of arbitrary caps on the amount of immigrants that can enter.”

As I noted a week or so ago, Scott Walker has begun to talk about immigration in terms of American wages, the only candidate in the GOP field to do so

Walker is right that this is a perspective on immigration that the political class generally abhors, and naturally, he is taking hits for his “far right” position, here and here. Walker should take the shots as a compliment, and hopefully, the rest of the field will begin to think and talk about immigration the same way.

Why isn’t what Walker understands this: If we’re not going to have open borders, we have to set the level of legal immigration somewhere. In making that decision, it’s surely reasonable to take into account labor market conditions and wage levels.

P.S.: What Walker said seems quite consistent with standard conservative plans (pushed by GOPs who support and GOPs who don’t support “comprehensive” reform) to give more immigration slots to higher-skilled workers and fewer to the low-skilled workers who bid down wages at the bottom, since it’s wages at the bottom we worry about most.

P.P.S.: Anyway, Walker only said wage considerations should be at the “forefront of our discussion.” If that doesn’t give him plenty of wiggle room — to take into account other factors, or to argue that more immigration will improve the economy for everyone — then he’s a less skilled pol than I think he is. …

Walker’s statement puts him to the right of even Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who told New Hampshire voters this weekend that there was “no stronger advocate” for legal immigration than him. “We need to improve and streamline legal immigration,” said Cruz.” We need to continue to welcome and celebrate legal immigrants.”…

In an interview with Bloomberg, Americans for Legal Immigration President William Gheen–who actually advocates lower legal immigration rates–said that Walker was only talking his language “because his polling data is saying that’s what Republican voters want.” Gheen had not forgotten that in 2006, Walker had made some favorable noises about a comprehensive reform bill. Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, pointed out that Walker had said many of the same things to Sean Hannity recently, and made no waves…

“Sure, he sounds great,” said Gheen. “He’s trying to sound great now. But earlier, he was saying something completely different. The Koch brothers and the Chamber of Commerce and the banks and the La Raza groups, everyone that’s on board with immigration reform — they’re looking for the best candidate that’s capable of deceiving people. It’s the biggest price tag in America today and it’s the reason that America is going to hell in a hand basket. No offense to you–I’m not talking about your work specifically–but the media generally allows politicians to get away with these lies.”…

Sessions saw that as a bold move by Walker, a willing break with the donor class. “There has been, within the broader sense of the word, an establishment,” he said. “Democrats and Republicans. I think there’s been a reluctance to have the issue framed in this way. So if Governor Walker commits to a discussion of this nationwide, I think it would be helpful for the republic.”

Arizona Sen. John McCain, the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee who has been working on immigration reform for nearly a decade, disputed the Wisconsin governor’s suggestion in a huddle with reporters on Capitol Hill.

“I think most statistics show that they fill part of the workforce that are much needed. We have, and I’m a living example of, the aging population. We need these people in the workforce legally,” he said.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the longest-serving Republican of the chamber, flatly dismissed Walker’s insinuation as “poppycock” when asked in a huddle by msnbc’s Benjy Sarlin.

“I basically think that’s poppycock,” he told reporters. “We know that when we graduate PhDs and master’s degrees and engineers, we don’t have enough of any of those. … The fact is you can always point to some negatives, but the positives are that we need an awful lot more STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] people. … Frankly a lot of us are for legal immigration and for solving this problem.”

By aligning himself with an immigration hawk like Sessions, Walker may be hoping to placate conservatives wary over his previous support for a pathway to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants. He has since reversed that position after, he said, “talking not just to citizens all across the country but to governors in border states who face real serious concerns about what’s happening on our border and elsewhere.”

Walker’s strategy is somewhat reminiscent of then-Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who, faced with similar questions over his devotion to the conservative cause in 2011, memorably tacked far right of his GOP rivals by endorsing “self-deportation.” Yet not even Romney, who lost the Latino vote to Obama by more than 40 percentage points in November 2012, supported curbing legal immigration, a concept at the core of what it means to be American. Walker’s pivot to the general election, if he makes it that far, could prove difficult, given that he will need to seek the votes of many Americans who immigrated here themselves — or whose parents or grandparents did so.

Notably, Sessions wants to further restrict legal immigration including high-skilled immigration, a position that is at odds with the traditional GOP anti-amnesty stance taken by virtually all presidential candidates, and which also puts him at odds with conservative policy experts and economists…this new positioning seems to represent a full 180 degree turn from where Walker has been on immigration historically, which is to say in the very pro-immigration and even pro-comprehensive reform camp…

Setting aside the substance of the policy, as the 2008 election demonstrated, it is really difficult in the age of Google to execute full policy reversals without earning a reputation as an untrustworthy, “say anything to win,” substance-and-guts-free politician. Even in 2012, when Republicans nominated Mitt Romney, his reputation for policy, er, flexibility was a significant negative for him and one that diminished enthusiasm for the candidate, probably adversely impacting his performance in that race.

This can be seen as both a flip-flip and a demagogic pander. There’s actually a debate to be had over whether or not illegal immigration costs jobs in the long run. Most people only do the part of the math that says more workers equals more supply (of labor), and thus lower wages. They don’t do the part of the math that says more people equals more demand for all sorts of products and services. Or the part that says more people equals more ideas. (There is more to this, of course, but the long and short of it is they are looking at this from a static perspective instead of a dynamic one.)…

This only confirms to me that Walker’s team is spotting the same opening to attract an under-served constituency that I write about in my Huckabee piece: “As a political observer, I can’t help but suspect that there is a huge opening for a conservative candidate willing to be the working man’s conservative.”

The fundamental problem for the GOP might be that there is an incentive problem. There’s a huge difference between what makes smart short-term sense for an individual candidate hoping to win a primary, versus what makes smart long-term sense for a party and a movement hoping to win the future.

It is not clear whether Walker is doing a 180 on legal immigration because he has not yet come out with a complete plan of his own. It’s not clear whether he understands that immigration is one way to boost economic growth. (There is replete evidence that immigration boosts revenue, growth and does not take jobs away from native-born workers.) Political tea-readers are therefore forced to guess at his inclinations from each utterance, but mentioning only Sessions by name is a red flag to those who see a know-nothing aversion to immigration that defies reality…

We have remarked that the temptation in the GOP primary is to play to the loudest voices and the staunchest segment of the party, even though they do not represent a majority of voters in the party, let alone in the general electorate. When the position also happens to be inconsistent with past statements and at odds with the rest of one’s message (in Walker’s case a “common- sense” conservative), it is especially problematic. And if the inconsistency is politically unnecessary to boot, one really has to wonder about the candidate’s motives.

It is a very long campaign, and no one issue or one interview is going to do in a candidate. However, if voters begin to detect a pattern or can’t figure out a candidate’s convictions, it becomes a problem. And if a candidate forgets that the ultimate objective is beating the Democratic nominee, then he does himself and his party no favors in zigzagging. Walker would be smart to get out his own plan, stick with it and put himself on the side of pro-growth immigration reform.

Even putting aside the economic arguments (Walker showed with his ethanol shift that he’s willing to put short-term political considerations ahead of sound economic policy) it’s unclear what his crass political thinking is here.

Walker doesn’t need to be the most conservative candidate in the race, as long as he remains broadly acceptable to conservatives and to the right of the establishment candidates. But it strikes me that there’s plenty of room to the right of Jeb Bush on immigration without talking about restrictions on legal immigration to protect American workers. Walker, it seems, has decided that he wants to ensure nobody can get further to his right on immigration.

As Ben Domenech notes in his Transom newsletter (subscription required), Walker’s new position “to my knowledge is held by none of the other presidential candidates (Ted Cruz is thought of as the hardliner on immigration, but he has worked to increase high-skilled legal immigration).”

The lack of political rationale behind this latest move suggests that Walker is just telling conservatives what he thinks they want to hear, without really understanding the broader philosophical or policy implications. And that’s not very encouraging for those of us who were hoping he’d be able to make the transition to the big leagues.