Scott Walker and Jeb Bush were bound to collide sooner or later. It turned out to be sooner.
As the son of a Baptist minister, and the son of the 41st president of the United States, these two were destined to be the odd couple of the 2016 election. Walker is running against the establishment and the Washington elites. Bush embodies both. Walker will need at least $100 million to compete in the GOP primary, and more if he makes it to the general. Most of the Republican donors who write those kinds of checks are on Bush’s speed dial.
Bush could be successful in a general election but he first must survive what is likely to be a brutal primary battle for the GOP nomination. He’ll have to convince far-right voters that he is conservative enough, and those are some of the very people who seem so enamored of Walker. Small world.
The collision was over immigration. During a recent trip to New Hampshire, Bush was asked by a reporter if he believed the Wisconsin governor had changed his views on the issue to appeal to the far right.
“He changed his views on immigration,” Bush said of Walker.
Bush knows a lot about change. On this issue, the former Florida governor has done some flipping and flopping himself.
As of this moment, Bush supports a kind of comprehensive immigration reform not unlike what his brother, President George W. Bush, proposed more than 10 years ago: border security, guest workers, and eventual legal status for undocumented immigrants.
“The best plan, the most realistic plan, the grown-up plan, once you control the border ... is to say, ‘Let these folks achieve, earn legal status,’” Bush said during the same trip to New Hampshire. “If we just keep people in the shadows, we’re not going to solve our immigration problems.”
For Walker and his loyal followers on the right—the Walkeristas—that kind of thinking is the problem. They hear what Bush and his many supporters in the Republican establishment and business circles consider to be real immigration reform and the only word that flashes into their heads, in big red letters, is “AMNESTY.” They define that concept, narrowly, as anything that allows the undocumented a way to escape deportation and legally remain in the United States.
During a recent appearance on Fox News Sunday, Walker made his views plain and couldn’t resist using the “a-word.”
“I don't believe in amnesty, and part of the reason why I've made that a firm position is I look at the way this president has mishandled that issue,” Walker said. “I think the better approach is to enforce the laws and to give employers, job creators, the tools like E-Verify and other things to make sure the law is being upheld going forward.”
For his part, Walker may not “believe in amnesty” now. But, not long ago, he sure sounded like a believer.
In July 2013, Walker sat down for an interview with the editorial board of the Wausau (Wisc.) Daily Herald. He was asked his view on immigration reform, and whether he supported a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. His response, according to a video of the meeting: “I think it makes sense.” Walker explained that any accommodation for the undocumented should be part of an overall “fix” of the immigration problem. But despite protests by the governor that the newspaper had quoted him “erroneously,” there is no denying that he approved of giving citizenship to illegal immigrants.
And now, Walker may have returned to the stance that he had previously taken and later disavowed. The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that, this month, at a private dinner of Republicans in New Hampshire, Walker expressed support for allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the country and eventually apply for citizenship. This is the first time we’ve heard this, and it further muddies Walker’s position.
What will the Walkeristas—not to mention assorted members of the Tea Party—say about that? Sounds like Walker himself has a pretty good idea what they’d say, because the same afternoon the Journal posted its piece, a Walker spokeswoman said, “We strongly dispute this account.”But Walker isn’t alone. Bush has also had trouble being consistent on the immigration issue. First, he may claim now that he wants to get people out of “the shadows.” But in January, during a speech in San Francisco, he seemed more eager to get illegal immigrants out of the country. In those remarks, Bush zeroed in on those people who overstayed their visas, and said: “We ought to be able to find where they are and politely ask them to leave.”
Also, on the issue of giving undocumented a path to citizenship, Bush has said that he supports the idea, and has even suggested an “accelerated” path for young people brought here as children by their parents. But, in his book Immigration Wars (co-authored by Clint Bolick), Bush comes out against a path to citizenship. His most recent position is that he could support a pathway if it were proposed by Congress. Does that mean he no longer opposes it? Who can decipher this?
Next, Bush opposed the Arizona immigration law, which roped local cops into enforcing federal immigration law and promoted ethnic profiling of Latinos. But again, in his book, he said that he supports letting local police be “the eyes and ears” of the Border Patrol. That’s the essence of the Arizona law.
Finally, Bush tells conservative audiences that any reforms to allow the undocumented to remain in the United States will only be possible once the U.S.-Mexico border is secure. It’s a message that has been reinforced by Bush aides. Yet, a few years ago, during an interview with Univision, Bush insisted that it was “not possible in a free country to completely control the border without us losing our freedoms and liberties.”
All of which leads me to ask: When the topic at hand is immigration, how many Jeb Bushes are there anyway?
Walker and Bush certainly aren’t the only politicians on the planet who have altered their views on immigration.
Just about every elected official in both parties who has ever taken on the issue has wound up in a different place than where he started. They’ve changed course, told whoppers, misled constituents, broken promises, pretended to be something they’re not, and spoken out of both sides of their mouths.
Why? Survival. Most politicians worship at the altar of re-election. And so they’re leery of issues that can trip them up, cause them trouble, or cost them votes.
Immigration is just such an issue. It actually splits the parties.
Democrats have to referee an intramural brawl between two core constituencies: Latinos who want to give undocumented immigrants, most of whom are also Latino, a path to legal status if not outright citizenship, versus white and African-American blue-collar workers who feel threatened by immigrant labor and want to give the undocumented a one-way bus ticket home.
Republicans have an internal scuffle of their own: Nativists who want fewer immigrants, whether they came legally or illegally, because they fear the changing complexion of the United States, versus business interests that want more immigrant labor and are willing to look the other way if the immigrants come illegally, because they fear that Americans won’t do the jobs they need filled.
How does an elected official, in either party, cater to one of his constituencies without ticking off the other?
That’s the key question. Up to now, neither Bush nor Walker have come up with an answer.