Fool Me Once...

The pundits all agree on immigration: "Immigration -- couched as border security -- is undoubtedly going to be a way Republicans look to change ...
by | November 21, 2007

The pundits all agree on immigration:

"Immigration -- couched as border security -- is undoubtedly going to be a way Republicans look to change the conversation on national security from Iraq. It's a political winner for them." -Domenico Mantanaro, NBC

"A very smart Democrat, a veteran of the Clinton administration, told me that he expects it to be a key part of any Republican campaign and that he is worried about his party's ability to respond. I think he has good reason to worry." -David Broder, the Washington Post

"Immigration is becoming for the 2008 election what affirmative action/racial preferences was 15 years ago -- the kind of emotional wedge issue that offers Republicans a way to split rank-and-file Democrats from their leaders." -Peter A. Brown, Quinnipiac Polling Institute

"...there is good reason for Democrats to worry: illegal immigration." -David Corn, the Nation

These statements sound the same, but there's a difference. The first three were made in the past week or so. Corn's dates from June of last year.

That's when, after Republicans won a special congressional election in California with a get-tough message on immigration, the punditry decided that the topic would hurt Democrats in the November elections.

As it turned out, the impact of immigration on congressional races was minimal. Moreover, it's best not to forget the three Republican gubernatorial candidates who focused most heavily on immigration -- although they were highly forgettable.

Len Munsil in Arizona, Ernest Istook in Oklahoma and Jim Barnett in Kansas all ran against Democratic incumbents in Republican states. Each of their opponents appeared vulnerable on immigration at the start of the campaign, so the three tried to take advantage. The result: They took 35%, 34% and 41% of the vote, respectively.

Now the punditry has decided that immigration will hurt Democrats next November. It's as though a horde of lemmings raced off a cliff, crashed to their deaths, were granted second lives by a merciful God, then proceeded to race back off that same cliff again.

Perhaps the issue will play out differently this time, but there are good reasons to think not.

A recent Washington Post/ABC national poll asked respondents which party they trusted more to handle immigration issues. Democrats held a 42%-35% advantage.

Two of the leading Republican candidates for president, Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee, probably have more lenient records on immigration than any of their potential Democratic opponents. When federal officials conducted an immigration raid in Arkansas during his tenure, Huckabee didn't just criticize it, he contributed emergency state funds to help the children of deported parents.

Perhaps more importantly, public opinion on immigration is exceptionally complicated. Majorities want tougher border security, but, in many polls, a majority also favors some way for illegal immigrants to legalize their status.

The cause of the new consensus that immigration hurts Democrats is, of course, the fallout from New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's recently aborted plan to allow illegal residents to obtain drivers' licenses. Republicans in states that already have similar rules might be able to use it as an issue (keep an eye on Oregon, where this looks like a hot topic).

Elsewhere, Republicans running in 2008 will have a tough time capitalizing on the drivers' license issue or any other small piece of the debate, without stumbling over broader immigration policy questions on which their party (like the Democrats) is deeply divided.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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