November 06, 2007

Mickey Kaus interrupts his daily potshots at the Democratic contenders for the White House (apparently, he's now offended that an Edwards campaign commercial mentions his wife's struggle with cancer) to celebrate what he sees as a turning point in the debate about immigration:

It seems like only months ago we were told the immigration issue was splitting Republicans. Now it's E.J. Dionne wringing his hands about the
worry among Democrats that Republicans are ready to use impatience with illegal immigration to win back voters dissatisfied with the status quo.
What's changed? Well, President Bush--the main politician doing the GOP-splitting--is leaving the scene. The Republican electorate seems to have decisively turned against his illegal-immigrant semi-amnesty. Result: No more split! But the powerful GOP anti-legalization sentiment was obviously latent even in 2006. The MSM just chose not to notice.

Anti-legalization sentiment has also been manifestly latent among Democratic voters--including, but not limited to, unskilled workers whose wages have been suppressed by immigrant competition. What's odd, then, is that the Dems now aren't split. They're only terrified! The Dem presidential candidates who might appeal to anti-legalization opinion--and thereby split the party--all seem paralyzed by their desire not to offend Latinos.

Hmm. The last successful Democratic presidential candidate defied his party's dogma on a central issue (welfare) at the risk, it was thought, of offending key interest groups (blacks, liberals). Is there no current candidate willing to do the same on immigration? You'd think someone in the 2008 field would make the move, just for strategic reasons. ... John Edwards may be edging there: On ABC's This Week he came out against N.Y. Gov. Spitzer's illegal-immigrant driver's-license plan. But he only did it sotto voce, after prompting, and after emphasizing his support for "comprehensive" reform (i.e. legalization). ...


P.S.: Dionne eventually dismisses anti-illegal-immigration sentiment with a classic paleolib device:
Yet at a moment when the electorate is very angry, it's not surprising that some voters are channeling their discontent through the immigration issue. It's happened before in our history.
Of course, pre-Clinton Democrats also dismissed voter anger on the welfare issue as displaced discontent about economic stagnation (when they weren't dismissing it as plain old racism). Welfare recipients were "scapegoats," we were told. Then it turned out that the voters who were angry at welfare were angry at welfare. It's just possible, as Michael Barone suggests, that the voters who are angry at illegal immigration are angry at illegal immigration.
Clearly, Dionne is overreacting to another bogus Penn-Carville poll; as political analysts, they failed to predict the sweep that captured both houses of Congress last year (Carville famously tried to get Howard Dean fired after Election Night), and they are among the last denizens of the camp that believes the Democrats' achilles heel is their weak showing in the South (the majority position now being that the party's poor standing in the South is a manifestation of the party doing very well everywhere else). The fact is, polls on this issue are all over the place.

And no matter how far the future GOP nominee attempts to distance himself from the President, any voter anger at border control will rest on the fact that the Republican Party controls the Executive branch. Insofar as the Republican candidate who has the most momentum right now (ie., McCain) is the one most identified with immigration reform, and the candidate whose campaign is cratering (Thompson) is the only major contender who has most explicitly adopted the "deport the illegals" position, it is hardly a sure thing the party will be able to effectively use immigrant-bashing as a wedge issue next fall anyway. But even if the party nominates someone who speaks the Minutemen's language, it will be impossible to ignore the fact that George Bush is still President. They're stuck with him as the face of the party, and his is the record they have to run on. In spite of (or, perhaps, because of) the immigration issue, Congressional Democrats have one of their all-time biggest partisan edges over the GOP, according to yet another James Carville poll.

So if Republicans want to make immigrant-bashing work for them as a political issue, they will probably have to wait until 2010 (lord knows, it didn't help them much in 2006). And who knows, with a Democrat in the White House and large majorities in Congress, they might actually be able to make it work in their favor, assuming President Clinton signs into a law a real reform package in her first two years.

Concerning the second half of Kaus' post, I can only say that I know he's a shrewder observer of history than that passage would make it seem. To compare today's immigration issue with yesterday's welfare reform, one needs to first understand that the there were two different phases to the anti-welfare campaign. In the first phase, from 1966-1982, it was clearly appropriate for liberals to identify "voter anger on the welfare issue as displaced discontent about economic stagnation (when they weren't dismissing it as plain old racism)," because that's how the welfare issue was framed at the non-elite level: as lazy Negro Welfare Queens driving Cadillacs and buying malt liquor with food stamps. It was a way to appeal to anti-minority sentiment without sounding like James Eastland or Richard Russell.

But underneath the code, there was a sound policy rationale for reforming the welfare system, something that neolibs like Bill Clinton and Mickey Kaus understood. In order for that side to get a fair hearing, the bigots needed to be discredited first. It is for that reason that Ronald Reagan, whose political career rose on his ability to exploit white backlash, never made any serious attempt to end welfare once he reached the Presidency, while Bill Clinton, who barely raised the issue in 1992, not only could sign into law such a measure, but could increase the party's share of the African-American vote in the process.

And the same thing is true with immigration. Of course, there are people out there who hold sincere beliefs about how illegal immigration may or may not cause a 3% decline in wages among unskilled workers, or about how a lax system of border enforcement is leading to a corrosive decline in respect for our laws, or the impact it has on deterring terrorists from entering the country.

But that's not where the noise comes from on this issue. It comes from people like VDare and the Minutemen, from people who see Latino immigrants, legal and illegal, as a brown wave that threatens to initiate a reconquista of the West. Allowing people who use the word "illegal" as a noun to drive this debate is like letting American policy in the Middle East be shaped by men who use "Jew" as a verb. On an issue like this, the motivation for enacting a law has to be considered as important as the substance of the policy itself.

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