On Monday, in an interview with Glenn Beck, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker staked a new position in the Republican Party argument over immigration. “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, on protecting American workers and American wages,” he said, “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.”
In the past, Republicans were merely opposed to illegal immigration. Mitt Romney touted “self-deportation” as a solution to unauthorized immigrants, while figures like Iowa Rep. Steve King channeled grassroots intensity to torpedo comprehensive reform and force a new course for Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and even Walker, who was for immigration reform before his move to the national stage. Legal immigration, by contrast, was uncontroversial. The same Romney who took a hard line on illegal immigration also promised foreign-born students that he would “staple a green card” to their college diplomas, and the same Sen. Ted Cruz who denounces “amnesty” at every opportunity has also argued for increasing the cap on H–1B visas—for skilled workers—by 500 percent.
In other words, Walker’s newfound skepticism of legal immigration is a real departure for the Republican mainstream. If he were a more factional candidate—like Ben Carson or even Sen. Rand Paul—it wouldn’t matter. Yes, the margins give you the freedom to say anything, but they also give your opponents the freedom to ignore you. Walker is far from marginal. He’s a conservative superstar with major backing and activist enthusiasm. And when he questions our regime of legal immigration, other candidates listen. To that point, think back to the 2012 primary, when Romney foreclosed a challenge from Texas Gov. Rick Perry by challenging him on immigration. After Perry declared that Republicans “don’t have a heart” if they oppose education subsidies for undocumented children during a September 2011 debate, Romney responded with incredulity over supporting any “illegals”:
You heard us last night at that debate … One of the things that I still can’t get over is the idea that a state would decide to give a $100,000 discount to illegals to go to school in their state. It is simply wrong to create that kind of magnet. It cannot be sustained. My friend, Gov. Rick Perry, said that if you don’t agree with his position on giving that in-state tuition to illegals that you don’t have a heart. I think if you’re opposed to illegal immigration it doesn’t mean you don’t have a heart. It means that you have a heart and a brain.
For a candidate trying to show his conservative bona fides to a skeptical base, Perry’s immigration stance was a godsend. Romney could tack to the right of the Texas governor, and other candidates would follow suit in a similar effort to box out a potentially serious opponent. And, with the help of Perry’s feckless campaign, he did just that, all but pushing the governor out of the race (that would take a few more months and a few more failures).
Walker isn’t blessed with the same caliber of opponent. Bush might be flabby from a long break from politics and Rubio might be a little too young and a little too eager, but both are shrewd men of good political judgment. They’ve distanced themselves from comprehensive immigration reform, even going as far—in Rubio’s case—to disavow their own proposals. But broadly, they’re still interested in trying to integrate unauthorized immigrants into American society, and using that as the basis for shared appeal to Latinos, Asians, and other groups with strong ties to immigrant communities.
Those are strong positions in the Republican primary; restrictionist enough for conservative voters but not too draconian for a general election. That is, if the base doesn’t follow Walker on legal immigration. If it does, then he may raise the cost of that “moderate” position, forcing them to switch gears and move toward him. Not only could Walker win votes, it would fit with his persona as the Republican who doesn’t have to compromise, the candidate who can win without ever budging from conservative principles.
If there’s a problem, it’s that conservative elites—and not just “the establishment”—have put a lot of time into defending legal immigration. In her post on Walker’s move, Jennifer Rubin, a former Romney partisan, challenges his rhetoric with a sharp note of evidence: “The notion that legal immigration hurts the economy and native workers has been rebutted repeatedly and is widely disparaged by a host of pro-growth conservatives and scholars.” Likewise, Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner challenges the politics behind Walker’s move: “[T]here’s plenty of room to the right of Jeb Bush on immigration without talking about restrictions on legal immigration to protect American workers.”
And then there’s the issue of the general. Romney hurt himself with “self-deportation,” leading to tremendous damage with Latino and Asian voters. Walker is on track to do the same, but turned to 11. How will nonwhite voters respond to a candidate who doesn’t want any immigration? By voting against him, in droves. Then again, if the economy falters between now and next November, and if Walker is the nominee, then it might not matter. Walker could take this hyper-restrictionist stance on immigration and prevail in a presidential election, vindicating his extremism.
Indeed, while Walker may not gain with his new stance on immigration, he won’t get hurt either; not with Republican voters, not with the general public, and not with his chief benefactors. No, the Koch brothers haven’t officially committed to Walker as their choice for the GOP presidential nomination—they’re still holding “auditions”—but he’s been a loyal and important ally in Wisconsin, even if he’s to their right on immigration. Given his strength as a politician and his success as a governor, why would they let that get in the way of promoting an effective operator? Their priorities are low taxes, few rules, and a threadbare safety net, and on those items, Walker is a sure bet.