Bloomberg View (Opinion)
By Ramesh Ponnuru
January 8, 2016
In some circles, Senator Marco Rubio is being labeled a “moderate” or “establishment” Republican even though his voting record is extremely conservative. It’s caused some puzzlement. The conservative writer David French thinks that if Rubio is the “establishment” candidate in the primaries, then “the term has lost any real meaning.”
Its meaning is certainly changing, and so is that of “conservative.” What the terminological dispute about Rubio suggests is that immigration is rapidly becoming a defining issue for American conservatism.
It didn’t used to be. Ronald Reagan was and is a conservative hero, even though he supported mass immigration and an amnesty. In 1988, Jack Kemp could run for president from the right of the party -- with everyone considering him a “movement conservative” rather than an establishment candidate -- while supporting open borders.
In 1996 and 2000, Steve Forbes also tried to consolidate conservative support in the primaries while favoring high immigration levels and opposing efforts to take government benefits away from illegal immigrants and their children. Neither Kemp nor Forbes succeeded in winning the nomination, but immigration was a secondary concern in Forbes’s defeat and not really an issue at all in Kemp’s.
The same pattern held in non-presidential races. In 1996, then Representative Sam Brownback of Kansas had nearly unanimous conservative support in his primary against an incumbent senator soon after he helped to defeat House legislation restricting immigration.
Obviously, immigration is now a much bigger issue for Republican voters. It is probably now the biggest concern in the presidential primaries. Admittedly, polling says otherwise. In December, Quinnipiac found that given a list of issues, only 11 percent of Republicans picked immigration as the most important one. But I think looking at those polls alone underestimates its importance. I submit that conservatives are now starting to see a candidate’s position on immigration as an index of his conservatism in general.
Abortion politics followed a similar trajectory. Opposing abortion wasn’t always considered part and parcel of conservatism. Everybody considered Senator John Tower of Texas a movement conservative even though he supported legal abortion. Over time, though, as conservatives grew more opposed to abortion and liberals more supportive of it, it became an issue that voters used to sort candidates by ideology.
Very few Republican voters have ever told pollsters that abortion is their top priority. But voters who knew that a candidate opposed it could also be reasonably sure that he would oppose gun control and tax increases -- or, at least, that he was more likely to oppose it than someone who favored legal abortion. Candidates who favored legal abortion started to have real trouble getting support from a lot of conservative voters. Eventually, such candidates came to be seen as not being conservatives at all.
Today, favoring tighter control of immigration is becoming a stand-in for conservatism in the same way. What that means exactly is a little hard to say. But the same was true in the case of abortion. Could a politician be considered “pro-life,” and thus have that conservative credential, if he favored keeping abortion legal in cases of rape and incest? Over time it became clear that yes, he could. A politician could also meet the test even if he showed no burning passion to fight abortion. If, on the other hand, a politician said it should generally be legal but not taxpayer-funded, he wouldn’t meet the test.
We don’t yet know where the line will be drawn on immigration. Favoring comprehensive change of the type Congress has repeatedly debated over the last decade is now clearly a strike against a candidate’s conservatism. Those changes would increase legal immigration, allow many illegal immigrants to become citizens, and start them on that path even if new enforcement measures against further illegal immigration turn out to be ineffective. The principal reason anyone is questioning Rubio’s conservatism is that he co-sponsored that kind of reform.
But with the issue in flux, opposing such measures might not end up being enough. Judging from comments during the primaries by Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker, the line could end up being drawn so that conservatism includes opposition to higher immigration levels, or support for reducing them. Or maybe even support for mass deportation of illegal immigrants, as Trump proposes.
The issue is also becoming a dividing line between the parties in a way it didn’t used to be, because the Democrats are also making it more central to their self-definition. (Again, the same thing happened on abortion: Pro-life Democrats, once common, grew scarce, and then so did Democrats willing to compromise on pro-choice views.) Barbara Jordan was a celebrated Democratic congresswoman; in the 1990s, President Bill Clinton put her in charge of an immigration commission that recommended cutbacks. Nothing similar will happen if there’s another President Clinton next year.
The new political line-up doesn’t mean that a Republican presidential candidate will have to embrace the emerging conservative orthodoxy to get the nomination. Rubio could win even if opponents of his immigration record successfully define him as an “establishment” candidate. After all, parties usually nominate establishment candidates. But the winner will have to deal with the new political reality: A hard line on immigration, however it is defined, is now part of the conservative creed.
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