On the screen, one of the Republican Party’s savviest strategists, Kevin Madden, is telling it like it is on immigration reform. He’s talking not really to Sunday’s CNN national audience but to a slightly smaller audience — his Grand Old Party’s leaders, posturers and presidential wannabes.
Many of whom were probably wishing he’d just shut up.
Here’s hoping he doesn’t. Because Madden’s message is spot-on. After all, he was a key Mitt Romney 2012 presidential campaign strategist. And since the question that he was asked on CNN’s State of the Union show was about immigration reform, Madden was speaking with a certain been-there, but-didn’t-do-that experience. Madden still bears the battle scars from what happened when Romney tried to campaign on an immigration platform based on the much-ridiculed notion of “self-deportation” of illegals. “We created a lot of problems for ourselves in 2012” with that, he once told The Washington Post.
Last week, Hillary Clinton made a sudden left turn on immigration reform in Las Vegas. She said she would “go even further” than President Barack Obama has done (via executive orders) to facilitate paths to citizenship for millions of immigrants who entered the United States illegally and for years have lived here, paid taxes here and raised children here.
Never mind that she offered no specifics on what she would do differently from Obama. And never mind (for now) that team Obama countered that its White House experts saw nothing more that a president could legally do by executive action.
What concerned Madden most was when Clinton declared: “This is where I differ from everyone on the Republican side. Make no mistake, today not a single Republican candidate, announced or potential, is clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship. Not one. When they talk about legal status, that is code for second-class status.” (Note: Her use of “clearly and consistently” was a calculated stretch that failed to satisfy some news media fact-checkers.)
Mainly, what Clinton was really doing, Madden said, was “laying bait” to trap Republican candidates into responding with reflexive negativity. “Republicans have to be careful because the Clinton campaign tactically has been very smart here,” he added.
“They suspect that Republicans …will come out very quickly and criticize the Democrats reflexively in a way that totally defines our stance on this issue by what we are against, versus what we are for.”
Republicans need to tell the growing bloc of Hispanic voters “what it is that we’re for — how a modernized immigration system fits in with a global annual economy. And how we want to invite people … to this country who are aspirational Americans.”
By the time Madden spoke, some Republicans had reflexively kicked back at Clinton. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker declared Clinton’s position “unfair to hardworking Americans and all immigrants who followed the law … And by supporting the president’s lawless executive action, Hillary Clinton once again believes she’s above the law.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., retorted on Facebook that Clinton’s effort to “expand President Obama’s illegal amnesty” would “continue the lawlessness that is dividing our country.”
And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called Clinton’s position “extreme,” adding: “We should not just be pandering. We should be talking about this honestly.”
None mentioned what they stand for in an immigration plan.
What’s odd about all this is that immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship was once a Republican idea, championed by President George W. Bush, under the tutoring of strategist Karl Rove. As Texas was seeing sharp increases in its Hispanic populations, Rove reasoned Republicans didn’t have to continue surrendering most of those new Hispanic voters to Democrats. Even in the last Congress, Florida’s Republican freshman Sen. Marco Rubio sponsored legislation to achieve comprehensive immigration reform, including a defined pathway to citizenship.
Enter the era of tea party politics. That conservative minority proved it could turnout and tip low-interest GOP primaries to the far right. When tea party conservatives began demonizing anyone who even hinted at amnesty for any illegals, establishment Republicans stampeded like elephants run amok.
The Grand Old Party’s survivalists came up with a duck-and-cover way of pretending to talk about immigration reform. Just say: First, we must seal off the border. Period. Second — did you totally seal off the border yet?
No matter how much we spend on border patrolling and sealing, the Grand Old Party seems content to delay meaningful immigration reform. At least until someone comes up with a recipe for something they can serve at a tea party.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.