The GOP knows that immigration is a powerful issue. But the party has avoided the chance to do something about it for two decades. A restrictionist position single-handedly saved the career of California’s Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in the 1990s. The issue fueled the Buchanan insurgency that nearly derailed Bob Dole’s nomination in 1996. At that time the issue even threatened to split off some Democrats. Former Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan’s commission on the issue called for reducing even legal immigration levels. “Credibility in immigration policy can be summed up in one sentence: those who should get in, get in; those who should be kept out, are kept out; and those who should not be here will be required to leave,” she said.
Alternating between fear of current restrictionist voters and cowardice before future Latino voters, the GOP has never said anything so clear as Barbara Jordan. Instead the issue has been ceded to populist media figures like cable television’s Lou Dobbs, talk radio’s Michael Savage, and the one-woman anvil chorus, Ann Coulter. It has been transformed from a normal policy question that every nation faces to a hotheaded insult directed south of the border.
Donald Trump is just the latest of these media figures, but unlike the rest he has the money and the lack of self-awareness to run for office and unburden himself about it. But the GOP could have avoided this by settling the issue one way or the other.
Had the GOP taken the hint after Gov. Wilson’s re-election, and worked with Democrats like Barbara Jordan, they could have taken the issue off the field for a generation.