In terms of legal immigration, how we need to approach that going forward is saying: the next president and the next Congress need to make decisions about a legal immigration system that’s based on, first and foremost, protecting American workers and American wages, because the more I’ve talked to folks, I’ve talked to Senator [Jeff] Sessions and others out there, but it is a fundamentally lost issue by many in elected positions today, is what is this doing for American workers looking for jobs, what is this doing to wages, and we need to have that be at the forefront of our discussion going forward.
Now this has prompted something of a pundit civil war on the right, with Philip Klein, Ben Domenech, Matt K. Lewis and The Washington Post’s own Jennifer Rubin blasting Walker — and Ramesh Ponnuru, Matthew Boyle, Rich Lowry and Ross Douthat defending Walker.
Policy-wise, I have a dog in this fight, and that dog is very much in favor of expanding legal immigration. In part, this is because doing so is a really nifty way of reducing illegal immigration, and because I’m a big fan of the United States not becoming a demographic disaster going forward. Douthat provides the most cogent defense of Walker’s position, and even he acknowledges that, “the strictly economic data doesn’t prove [Walker or] Jeff Sessions’ case in a definitive way.”
But the policy question is neither here nor there. What I find more interesting is the bizarre political moment the GOP finds itself in right now.
Walker’s immigration stance reveals two interesting facts on the 2016 GOP race. First, amazingly, Walker is getting points for political courage for an obvious flip-flop. Why? because Walker’s defenders can legitimately claim that it incurs the wrath of the most powerful donors on the GOP side.
I vaguely remember that, back in the day, political courage was defined as taking the anti-populist political position because it was the right thing to do. But because “the invisible primary” privileges super PAC money over actual primary voter preferences, Walker’s defenders are not wrong here.
Second, the policy reason Walker offers for his stance on restricting legal immigration relative to the status quo suggests that the reformicons have some work to do to keep the GOP policy cupboard from looking threadbare. Lowry quoted Walker making similar immigration comments earlier this month to Sean Hannity in which he said that U.S. immigration policy should be “one that ultimately has to protect American workers and make sure American wages are going up.”
To be clear, it’s far from obvious that legal immigration actually has the effect on wages that Walker is claiming. But ask yourself a question: When was the last time you heard a GOP presidential nominee talk about raising the incomes of American workers in a way that did not mention tax cuts?
To be fair to the GOP, they would much rather focus on reviving entrepreneurialism and economic growth on the notion that this will improve the lot of the working and middle classes. Still, it’s gotten to the point where even GOP candidate policies that offer some relief to the middle class are not believed to be credible by other GOP politicians. Walker’s position on legal immigration, however blinkered it might be on the economics, is grounded in the notion that he is pushing for higher wages for American workers.
To reiterate, the actual evidence for this relationship does not jibe with Walker’s claims. But at least Walker now has a plank — however bogus — to address this issue. The challenge for the rest of the GOP field is to come up with a policy platform that address this concern that threads the needle of actually addressing the problem while not violating GOP policy orthodoxy.
Good luck with that.