By Jim Kessler
On Election Day, the great immigration wedge fizzled. This was supposed to be the “gay marriage” of 2006. It was supposed to follow guns and abortion as issues where Democrats would fall into their single issue trap and repel white voters. But Democrats survived and repelled the immigration wedge because they understood and spoke to the internal complexities that typical voters felt about the issue and Republicans did not. And mostly they won because they didn’t act like typical Democrats.
With all due respect to Lou Dobbs and to Republican anti-immigrant leaders Tom Tancredo (R-CO) and J.D. Hayworth (R-K-Street), most people aren’t outraged about illegal immigrants. They are conflicted about them and about the issue.
They believe that illegal immigrants are mostly good, hard-working people seeking to build a better life. They also believe they are law-breakers. They believe that if they play by the rules, assimilate, and work hard that they should have a right to become citizens. They also believe that sending them back to their home countries would be a good goal for America.
In the past, Democrats had seized upon immigration to solidify their support among a growing Hispanic population. They had used the debate to define Republicans as intolerant, mean-spirited, even bigoted. They had characterized illegal immigrants as pure innocents and victims of discrimination and abuse. But this was a trap. From Third Way’s extensive polling on this issue, people’s compassion for illegal immigrants stopped where their taxpayer interests began.
At our urging, Democrats played a different tune this year on immigration. They supported the same policies that they had in the past but defined their goals in ways to appeal to non-Hispanic voters. They called for toughness on the border, fairness to taxpayers, and practicality in terms of dealing with the existing problem and restoring the rule of law. They excoriated President Bush for failing to enforce existing laws. And they defined the path to citizenship, not as the compassionate solution for illegal immigrants, but as the best solution for taxpayers.
It worked. Because Democrats supported immigration reform, their margin among Hispanics jumped from eleven to thirty-nine points. In part because they messaged reform to appeal to taxpayers, their deficit among whites dwindled from fifteen to four points. In nearly all races where immigration became a major issue, Democrats thumped Republicans. In Arizona, ground-zero in the immigration debate, two house seats flipped from R to D. Some of the most virulent foes of immigration reform were sent packing. And Democrats who began the year on the defensive cruised to victory.
Now what? We have already heard from some Democrats a reluctance to take up the issue at all. They see it as overly controversial, and they don’t want to tempt fate with another foray into this issue. But they don’t have a choice. We have an immigration crisis in this country and if nothing is done Democrats will be blamed.
At Third Way, we are confident that Democrats can pass immigration reform without alienating non-Hispanic voters. If Democrats cling to the substance in the Senate-passed McCain-Kennedy bill and stick to the message of tough, fair to taxpayers, and practical, they will not only repel the immigration wedge — they will receive credit for solving one of America’s most vexing problems.
Jim Kessler is Vice President for Policy at Third Way
By Jim Kessler