Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's comments last month opposing legal immigration came as a shock. How could a man who until a little over month ago was even willing to consider a path to citizenship for undocumented workers pull such an "Olympic-quality flip-flop"?
But the real story is not Walker's switcheroo, but the conservative punditocracy's switcheroo that paved the way for his.
Walker, who is fast sprinting into the first place for the Republican presidential nomination, told Glenn Beck recently that "The next president and the next Congress need to make decisions about a legal immigration system that's based, first and foremost, on protecting American workers and wages." And lest there be any doubt that by this he meant a more restrictive immigration policy, he noted that he arrived at his position after talking to Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, a powerful restrictionist who has been the single biggest obstacle to any immigration reform that didn't involve drastically scaling back current levels and sealing the border.
Walker's position is odd for someone who has made a career out of breaking the chokehold of labor unions whose whole agenda involves artificially restricting the supply of new workers to protect jobs and wages of existing workers. But what's even odder is that it places Walker — who had also heartily endorsed more legal immigration in high-skill areas and elsewhere — to the restrictionist right even of Mitt Romney and Ted Cruz. Their opposition — which to date has largely defined the outside edge of Republican restrictionism — was limited to illegal immigration. They never went so far as to suggest that the economic impact of legal immigration, especially the high-tech variety, on American wages and jobs was anything but positive. Romney had even floated the idea of "stapl(ing) a green card" to the diplomas of foreign graduates from American universities.
But if Walker thinks he can get away with embracing labor protectionism it's because he knows that respectable conservatives will give him cover, something he could not have counted on before. That's because, until recently, except forNational Review, the vast bulk of smart-set conservative opinion was decisively in favor letting market need — not the arbitrary whim of a labor bureaucracy beholden to unions — set immigration levels.
To be sure, for many conservative pundits — such as The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin, The Wall Street Journal editorial page, The Washington Examiner's Phillip Klein — Walker's comments were still anathema. But an equal — if not bigger — chorus was more sympathetic, not imaginable two presidential election cycles ago. Among them were relatively newer muckraking outfits such as Breitbart and The Daily Caller, which, until recently, had in its employ, Mickey Kaus, a liberal progressive solely because he shared its restrictionist agenda.
But also in this mix were the more established The Weekly Standard, which pulled its own flip-flop. Its founder (and dear friend) Bill Kristol used to be pro-immigration when he was pushing Sen. John McCain's presidency. But he opposed the 2013 Gang of Eight immigration reform bill on the dubious grounds that the "huge increase in immigration in that bill" would be "bad for working class and middle class wages and economic opportunity in this country." But the most prominent Walker defender was Ross Douthat, The New York Times' resident conservative who chastised Walker's conservative detractors for over reacting. Douthat lambasted them all as open border advocates (if only!) and congratulated Walker for doing a "real service" to his party by questioning its dominant "sunshine and roses" view of immigration.
But why has the conservative punditry turned so dramatically against its bedrock commitment to immigration on such short order? Because it regards restrictionism as a smart strategy and it doesn't much care for markets.
Many of these conservatives are convinced that courting Hispanics and other minorities with a pro-immigration stance is not the only road to the White House for Republicans, as some believe. That Romney received only 27% of the Hispanic vote — after inviting undocumented aliens to "self-deport" — might have contributed to his loss in the last presidential election, they admit. But that might not have been fatal if he hadn't also dissed 47% of potential voters as non-tax-paying liberal welfare queens.
Romney's contempt prompted millions of white voters, mostly men — the so-called Reagan Democrats — to sit out the last election. That's because they didn't identify with Democrats' progressive agenda and Republicans didn't offer them anything, these conservatives believe. These voters can be coaxed into the Republican fold, they maintain, by a solidly middle class, populist message. Restrictionism is an integral part of that.
It also helps that these conservatives are sympathetic to the "two cheers" for capitalism school of thought that worries about the effect of unbridled market forces on family and community. They have no principled objection to using the government to temper markets and strengthen families — and immigration restrictions are a perfectly acceptable part of that.
Should Walker continue to drift in their direction and harden his opposition to immigration, the GOP primary will be as much a fight for the Republican soul as it's about picking the best Republican to run for the White House.
This column originally appeared in the USA Today