Immigration Fluency in the GOP Primary Field

On the issue of immigration, the field of Republican presidential aspirants is typically classified along ideological or policy lines—that is, placed along some array between the hardliners who strongly oppose comprehensive immigration reform versus those willing to find a compromise solution that involves a mix of border-strengthening that conservatives demand and pathway-to-citizenship reforms that party moderates advocate.

But the recent political stumbles on immigration by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker—hammered in recent days for being a flip-flopper on this issue and other issues—suggest that it may be equally useful to classify the 2016 GOP contenders in a more basic way: Between those who are better-versed and more familiar with immigration policy and politics, and those who relative political novices on the issue and learning on the fly of a presidential campaign with the national media watching.

In the first group are candidates including Jeb Bush, Rick Perry and Marco Rubio.

Rubio is Latino and a member of the so-called “Gang of 8” U.S. senators who, way back in 2011, attempted to forge and pass through Congress a bipartisan legislative solution on comprehensive immigration reform. Rick Perry was the longest-serving governor of the state that shares the largest border with Mexico and is home to the second-largest Latino population in the country. Not only does his have a wife of Mexican descent, Jeb Bush is another former governor of a state featuring a huge Latino population.

Given their backgrounds, it would have been surprising had any of these three politicians progressed very far in their careers without having developed some expertise and articulated a relatively coherent set of positions on immigration issues. That doesn’t mean their policy positions are set in stone. For example, although generally an advocate for reform, Rubio at times has shifted his stance on the issue to serve some political end.

In fact, at the Conservative Political Action Committee’s annual meetings in suburban Washington earlier this month, Rubio did just that by expressing his agreement with conservatives who insist that any reform agreement include restrictions on future levels of immigration, regardless of what fate an agreement might have for undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States. As Latino Decisions’ co-founder Matt Barreto remarked when asked about Rubio’s subtle policy shift, “Rubio needs to find a way to engage conservatives on the immigration issue, and to convince them that this is the right thing to do – and not let conservatives convince him to flip-flop on the issue.”

But the point is that some Republicans are simply more fluent in the policy and politics of immigration.

On the other hand, there are possible 2016 Republican presidential aspirants who are not. That includes political amateurs like Ben Carson, who seems to put his political foot in his mouth once he gets beyond vague platitudes and into the realm of policy detail. (Witness his recent, widely-mocked comments about prison and homosexuality.) But it also includes politicians like Christ Christie and Walker who simply built their national reputations on a different set of issues.

Walker, of course, rose to national prominence by pushing back against state pension spending and the power of labor unions in Wisconsin. He’s the governor of a border state—but Canada is not the neighbor of concern to “build a fence” immigration reform opponents. There are no self-appointed border militias—and certainly nobody akin to Joe Arpaio—in a state like Wisconsin.

He is being criticized for recently taking a more hardline position against amnesty in response to a question from reporter Martha Raddatz, after the governor earlier expressed support for reform that included a pathway to citizenship. Non-partisan Politifact has rated the claim that Walker has flip-flopped as not a full flop but a “half flip.”

So when Walker’s positions start to shift—and on immigration he openly concedes that his position has changed—we shouldn’t be that surprised. Presidential candidates are always trying to find a sweet spot on policies that allow them to differentiate themselves from their opponents and simultaneously attract some group of primary voters without offending too many others.

But for political newcomers to national immigration politics, like Walker, this can be a dangerous dance. Now that he is emerging as a contender—a candidate hailed as being able to please both the so-called “establishment” wing  and conservative base of the party—the Wisconsin governor’s positions on his set of less fluent issues will be scrutinized more closely. And he is not likely to be the last GOP contender to stumble on the politics of immigration reform.

Thomas Schaller is political director at Latino Decisions, a political columnist for the Baltimore Sun, and professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the author of Whistling Past Dixie (Simon & Schuster, 2006), and his most recent book is The Stronghold: How Republicans Captured Congress but Surrendered the White House (Yale University Press, 2015).