Not always majority support, granted, but Ramesh Ponnuru reminds us there’s a sizable chunk of voters out there who are open to reducing legal as well as illegal immigration. Given widespread paranoia among top Republicans about losing Latinos forever over grassroots opposition to amnesty, Walker moving to Mitt Romney’s right by questioning legal immigration seems counterintuitive and politically dangerous. But is it? Per Ponnuru, hmmmm:
Interesting, but maybe that 39 percent opposition is driven almost entirely by Republicans, people whom Walker can already count on to support him as nominee, in which case his legal immigration position isn’t winning him any new votes. Look back a bit further to another Gallup poll from last year, though, and you’ll see that’s not true:
Even among indies, a strong plurality of 43 percent wants immigration decreased. At a minimum, 74 percent of American adults don’t want to see immigration increase, putting them squarely at odds with a lefty base that’s forever clamoring for amnesty. Go back another year, to 2013, and you’ll find even stronger opposition to legal immigration via a Fox News poll:
The Fox data isn’t as refined as the Gallup data because it includes no option for keeping immigration levels as they are now, but it’s revealing that when given a stark choice between more or less, nearly all demographic groups say “less” — including nonwhites. There’s potential there for Walker. And framing this issue explicitly in terms of protecting American workers’ wages could help him with another vulnerability, notes pollster Kellyanne Conway:
The left will try to caricature him as union-busting, as anti-worker [because of Wisconsin’s collective bargaining reforms]. This gives him the opportunity to say ‘if you’re for amnesty, you’re anti-worker. What I am is pro-worker. It is anti government corruption. Having public sector union members expect Wisconsin taxpayers pay 100 percent of their benefits, that wasn’t fair.’ It’s a matter of fairness. Allow him to explain all of that as pro-worker not anti-worker and if he can do that he’ll be fine. Also, this gives him a distinction among a Republican field that’s getting increasingly crowded. This allows him to be seen as a working-class, populist hero—a working class governor who’s a natural populist, it’s just a natural fit. I don’t know if Mitt Romney could have pulled this off. Then you fast forward and you think of this idea versus Hillary Clinton—if she even has anything to say on immigration—this is the winning hand. This is absolutely the winning hand.
I don’t know about that last part. If this was an obviously winning hand, some savvy top-flight Republican contender would have seized on it in 2008 or 2012, no? (I know, I know — “there were no savvy Republicans running in 2008 and 2012!”) Certainly, though, Conway’s describing Walker’s best argument for his position. And Ponnuru, in another recent piece, offers another: “[I]mmigrants would assimilate more quickly — and earn higher wages — if the country took in fewer of them and didn’t consign many of them to a second-tier workforce without the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.” Reducing legal immigration: Not just good for American workers but good for immigrant workers too!
Just tell me this: Is Walker really going to own this argument and defend it under withering lefty fire? Standing firm while under attack from liberals is his trademark, admittedly, but it won’t just be lefties hammering him this time. It’ll be the GOP’s donor class too, which will be horrified at the thought of seeing a key supply of cheap(er) labor cut off. That’s the deep mystery at the heart of Walker’s shift on this issue. Why would a guy who already enjoys plenty of goodwill with conservatives risk alienating the Chamber of Commerce wing, which also likes him and would be willing to put many millions of dollars at his disposal in the campaign — provided he doesn’t screw them on one of their pet issues, as he now seems to be doing? Very strange. Maybe Walker figures that he’s fighting a losing battle trying to compete with Jeb for establishment money and has decided to try to win with conservative votes instead, which could cut off Rubio’s and Cruz’s paths to the nomination. Once that happens and it’s Walker versus Bush, one on one, Walker may be calculating that he’ll win that battle and then the donor class will have no choice but to support him.
Besides, to answer my own question, let’s be realistic: Having spent most of his political life thus far as a loud and proud amnesty shill, Scott Walker’s not going to suddenly transform into Tom Tancredo and remain that way for the duration of the campaign. In fact, read carefully what he’s already said about wages and legal immigration to Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity and you’ll find that he hasn’t actually called for reducing immigration levels. He simply wants policymakers to consider the impact on wages when setting those levels. That’s significant, but it’s as mild a gesture as you can make in this direction and it’s something Walker will have no difficulty walking away from later if need be — e.g., “my staff and I have looked at wage effects from current immigration streams and we think the status quo is sustainable.” Before righties line up behind Walker on this issue, which could force other candidates to mimic his position, let’s at least have some confidence that he’ll defend his position once he really starts taking a pounding for it. Do you have that confidence yet? After he’s already conspicuously reversed himself on immigration to solve a political problem once before?