Immigration Reform — And The Dangers of Right-Wing Populism

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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I’ll spare you my thoughts on last night’s shocking primary surprise, and just focus on one of the potential consequences: The triumph of right-wing populism, and — more specifically — the death of immigration reform. To be honest, I think it was already dead, but if not, this was the final nail in the coffin.

While some elements of conservative populism are commendable (such as concerns about big business colluding with big government) I remain convinced that immigration reform is solid policy, and that there are many reasons why conservatives ought to support more immigrants.

What is more, despite what some are saying now, I suspect it would become even harder to pass immigration reform should Republicans take the Senate (but maybe I’ll be proven wrong?), and that this is very problematic for conservatives, in the long run.

The truth is that, in the short run, the “amnesty” issue is incredibly dangerous for Republicans facing primary contests. It doesn’t always destroy them — if it did, Rep. Renee Ellmers and Sen. Lindsay Graham would be toast. But when you look at what the issue did to John McCain in 2007, and the way Mitt Romney — Mitt Romney! — demagogued the issue in order to effectively attack Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich in 2012 — and then look at the rough year Marco Rubio had in 2013 — it becomes clear that championing this profile in courage is often a profile in political suicide.

The problem is that the incentives pushing Republicans to take positions against immigration reform (or, even worse, as Eric Cantor seemed to do, to flip-flop on the issue) in order to win primaries probably also sow the seeds for future national general election losses. (No, I don’t think Hispanics are solely focused on immigration reform, but I do think tackling this problem is a sine qua non.)

Even more frustrating is the fact that Republicans seem to have chosen to create this sort of vicious cycle, whereby perceived antagonism toward immigrants has led to Republicans losing Hispanic votes — which, in turn, has led other Republicans to argue that immigration reform is electoral suicide… Repeat.

This seems to have become a self-fulfilling prophesy of the GOP’s own choosing; Democrats now “own” the immigration reform “brand,” which has all sorts of long-term consequences and implications, including the fact that conservatives now reflexively oppose even moderate reforms like the DREAM Act. And frankly, I suspect, Democrats are perfectly happy with that.