Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is a weekly columnist and senior writer for The American Prospect. He also writes for the Plum Line blog at The Washington Post and The Week and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

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Photo of the Day, Goose Stepping Edition

This is a group of Russian soldiers rehearsing for the upcoming parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Say what you will about the Russians, they know how to put on a military parade.

Republicans Are Thoroughly Freaked Out by Clinton's Immigration Move, but Should They Be?

While the substance of what Hillary Clinton actually proposed to do in her immigration event on Tuesday may be a bit less than it first appeared (see my colleague Greg Sargent for more on that), there was one thing she said that was absolutely clear: Whatever Republicans might try to convince you of, they don't want to let undocumented immigrants have a path to citizenship. "Not a single Republican candidate, announced or potential, is clearly supporting a path to citizenship," she said. "Not one. When they talk about legal status, that is code for second-class status." Depending on how you define "clearly," that's not completely true—the position most of them are taking is that eventually, after we've "secured the border," then we can talk about a path to citizenship.

Clinton might argue that they're full of baloney on that, which they probably are (more on that below), but in any case, Republicans seem pretty unnerved by this, as evidenced by the fact that most of the candidates can't figure out what to say in response. As Byron York reports, not only have most of the candidates not said anything about Clinton's immigration stance, they seem to be suddenly realizing anew that this is going to be a real problem for them with Hispanic voters:

The idea was that [comprehensive immigration] reform was a threshold issue—that is, Republicans would have to pass it before Hispanic voters would consider supporting the GOP's stand on other issues. Hence the Gang of Eight effort, led by Rubio. But reform, passed by the Democratic Senate with Rubio's efforts, died in the Republican-controlled House.

So Clinton has made her move. Her new position effectively trumps all other immigration reform offers on the table. Her message to Hispanic voters is: No Republican—not Jeb, not Marco, not anybody—will offer you as much as I will.

The Republican response is unclear. Can Bush and Rubio say they share Clinton's goal of citizenship for millions of currently illegal immigrants but disagree with her way of getting there? That's not terribly strong. Do they stick with the "legal status" that Clinton characterizes as "second-class status"?

The fact is, if the heart of immigration reform is an effort to win the support of Hispanic voters, Clinton's offer has trumped all other immigration reform proposals on the table. There's not much pro-reform Republicans can say: "We'll give you a little less than Hillary—but please look at our issues, like taxes and entitlement reform."

I'm not sure that this is such a sure thing. It may be true, but it will depend a lot on who the Republican nominee is. If it's Scott Walker, then yes, Hispanic support for the Republican ticket will crater. But while the substance of the issue debate matters, identity and attitude matter too.

Let's say that Marco Rubio were the Republican nominee. You'd have to expect at least some Hispanics to be attracted to the idea of the first Hispanic president, even if the Democratic nominee has a position on immigration that they find more appealing, not to mention the fact that when Rubio talks about immigration he doesn't sound nearly as mean-spirited as someone like Walker or so many other Republicans. If Jeb Bush gets the nomination, he'll be cutting ads in Spanish (which he speaks fluently) to air on Univision and Telemundo, showing off his Mexican wife and half-Mexican kids, and generally doing everything he can to communicate that he understands Hispanics and their concerns. What you certainly won't get from him is the message of outright hostility that so many people perceived coming from Mitt Romney.

It may not be possible at this point to know how persuasive all that might be. But consider that the position Republicans are offering on immigration is a sequence of policy moves, and when two candidates describe the same sequence it can sound very different, even if the substance is essentially the same. When Scott Walker describes it, it sounds a lot like "We need to crack down, secure the border, get tough on those no-good illegals. And yeah, when that's done we'll get around to making a path to citizenship, but did I mention how tough we're going to be?" When Marco Rubio describes it (and particularly as he would describe it if he's past the Republican primary and into the general election), it sounds more like, "First we'll secure the border, and then after that's taken care of we'll bring hard-working people out of the shadows and set them on a path to citizenship so they can be part of our big American community."  

Again, they're describing the same policy sequence: some effort to enhance border security (without any details), then a process by which undocumented immigrants are granted legal status, which could eventually lead to full citizenship (though Walker can't seem to decide whether citizenship is actually at the end of that process; at various times he's said yes and no). But it's entirely possible that, given the right messenger and the right tone, at least some Hispanic voters could decide that what the Republican is saying is, if not what they'd prefer, at least good enough.

But what no Republican is going to admit is that the Republican Congress is never going to pass comprehensive immigration reform, no matter what the next Republican president thinks or says about it. That's because what we have now is an extremely conservative GOP caucus, particularly in the House, many of whose members personally don't want to see undocumented immigrants get on a path to citizenship, and more importantly, who know that their constituents from the very conservative districts they represent don't want that. The truth is that in all likelihood the only way such reform could pass the House is through a combination of Democratic seat gains and Clinton winning the White House, which might convince a few more Republicans that immigration really is a "threshold" issue that necessitates comprehensive reform. But no Republican candidate, whatever they think about immigration, is going to admit just how hard it will be to pass reform.

Photo of the Day, Ordinary Bloke Edition

That's British prime minister David Cameron, helping out with some bricklaying ahead of tomorrow's election, like a regular chap would do. Man of the people and all that, wot wot.

Don't Sweat the Iowans, Jeb

So Quinnipiac has a new poll out showing Jeb Bush with ongoing problems among Republicans in Iowa, but I don't think he should be worried. I'll let Ed Kilgore explain:

What do the internals say about Jeb Bush's basic standing among Iowa Republicans? They really don't much like him, though not as much as they don't like Chris Christie. Jebbie's favorable/unfavorable ratio among likely caucus-goers is at 39/45 (down from 41/40 in February). Christie's is at 32/56. The only other underwater proto-candidate is Lindsey Graham, at 15/37. Ben Carson's at 53/9; Ted Cruz: 59/19; Carly Fiorina: 26/8; Mike Huckabee: 64/27; Bobby Jindal: 45/9; John Kasich: 20/8; Rand Paul: 59/23; Rick Perry: 51/30; Marco Rubio: 69/9; Rich Santorum: 56/28; Scott Walker: 59/11.

As compared with QPac's February poll, Bush has now passed Christie as the guy most named as someone likely caucus-goers definitely will not vote for, at 25%. Forty-five percent say Bush's positions are “not conservative enough,” more than for any candidate other than Christie (52%).

That, not "Bush fatigue," seems to be the problem (at least among Republicans—I'm guessing revulsion at his last name is a big factor in general election trial heats, which in turn affects his electability street cred among Republicans, but none of that is measured here). W.'s favorability ratio is a robust 81/16, and Poppy's is 80/13.

So what's their problem with Jeb? I'll get to that in a moment, but first let's look at a poll that just came out from the New York Times:

While Mr. Bush has faced questions about whether he is conservative enough to win a Republican primary, only 22 percent of Republican voters said his views were not conservative enough. Further, 60 percent of Republican voters said having the right experience was more important in a presidential candidate, while only 27 percent said they thought offering fresh ideas was more valuable.

What could also help Mr. Bush—along with the other governors or former governors seeking the G.O.P. nomination—is that 73 percent of Republican voters said they preferred candidates with experience outside Washington.

Now it's true that in that poll, 38 percent of Republicans say they wouldn't consider voting for Bush, but that's about the same number received by a number of other candidates, including Huckabee, Paul, Santorum, and Perry. But Bush doesn't need 100 percent of Republicans to consider voting for him in the primaries, he just needs enough to get a plurality in one state after another.

To return to the Iowans, my suspicion is that while caucus voters may not have heard enough about any of the candidates yet, they know that Bush is supposed to be the establishment choice, and that's not what they're looking for. Let me repost a graph I made a couple of months ago:

Iowa Republicans not only aren't like other Americans, they aren't even like other Republicans. They're more conservative, more white, more male, and more likely to be evangelical. Jeb can lose them and be just fine, just like Mitt Romney and John McCain were. Would he rather win the Iowa caucus? Of course. But losing it is both to be expected and not much of a blow to the rest of his candidacy.

Why Hillary Clinton Can Move Left on Immigration

Back in 2008, I tried (without much success) to convince everyone that John McCain's reputation as a "maverick" was built on a fundamental misconception. It isn't that he didn't sometimes go against the prevailing Republican position on a given issue, because he did, even if those occasions were actually quite rare. It's that when he did so, it was always on an issue where the Republican position was vastly unpopular with the public as a whole. So his maverickizing inevitably put him on the right side of public opinion, winning him the best of both worlds: He could win plaudits from his admirers in the press for being allegedly courageous, but also do the popular thing.

I thought of that today looking at Hillary Clinton, who last night made her first detailed remarks on immigration since becoming a candidate—not because I'm trying to argue that Clinton is as phony as McCain (maybe, maybe not, but not what I'm interested in right now), but because of the complex interplay of sincere belief, primary considerations, and general election worries that operates on an issue like this one. While it was expected that Clinton would be firmly in favor of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, her comments yesterday were surprising because they put her to the left of Barack Obama. Not only does she support the executive actions he has taken on immigration, she said she'd go further, by moving to suspend deportations of the parents of "dreamers," undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. (Obama's policy covers undocumented immigrant parents of those who were born in the U.S., but not the parents of those who came here as children.)

There's a long way to go in this campaign, but it looks so far like Clinton is emerging as a more liberal candidate than we expected, particularly given that, for most of her career, she's been known as a center-left Democrat. I think Steve Benen describes the situation well:

But as her candidacy takes shape, note how consistently she's positioned herself as a progressive champion of late. Clinton delighted much of the left, for example, with her remarks on criminal-justice reform last week. The Democratic base was equally pleased to hear about Clinton's 50-state strategy, her willingness to buck Wall Street, and her consideration of a constitutional amendment on campaign financing.

And now Clinton has done it again on immigration.

Some critics on the left will likely note, with cause, that she's adopted a far more progressive vision than the one she used to espouse. There's some truth to that, though where she is arguably matters more than where she was. President Obama has helped shift the national debate to the left a bit on many of these key issues; the Democratic coalition has become more unified around a progressive agenda; much of the American mainstream is far more likely to embrace the left's proposals than it was eight years ago; and Clinton has clearly evolved on these issues, ending up right where most of her party—and much of her country want her to be.

As I've argued before, ultimately irrelevant is the question of whether Clinton is sincere on any particular issue on which her position has changed; presidents govern as the candidates they were, whatever might be in their hearts. And I have no trouble believing that she genuinely believes in what she's espousing now. It's not as though she underwent some kind of wholesale, Romney-esque reinvention; in some cases she's just putting a new emphasis on things she already believed, and in others (like marriage equality) she evolved along with most of the country. Furthermore, issues themselves change over time, and often there is a different set of options on the table now than there were ten or twenty years ago. And there are certainly issues we haven't yet gotten into where her more centrist impulses might come to the fore. She hasn't said a lot about foreign policy yet, and she has always been one of the more hawkish Democrats.

What may matter most is that Clinton has room to be more liberal if that's what she wants. Consider the contrast on the issue of immigration with the candidates running on the Republican side. Clinton has an advantage they don't, not only because she isn't worried so much about winning the primaries but also because the things that will win her support from Democrats will also serve her well in the general election. The Republicans face have a difficult challenge: they have to appear tough on immigration in order to appeal to primary voters, but doing so runs a serious risk of alienating the general electorate, particularly Hispanic voters. (I discuss this in more detail in my column today at The Week.)

Clinton has no such fears. Although public opinion on immigration is complicated, there's a clear majority in favor of a path to citizenship, and the people who would be most angered by what she said yesterday aren't going to be voting Democratic anyway. So she can simultaneously cheer her base, assure Hispanic voters, and risk nothing with white moderates.

That's true to varying degrees on many other issues as well, for the simple reason that in most (not all, but most) cases, the consensus position within the Democratic Party is more popular than the consensus position within the Republican Party. It's a nice place for Clinton to be.

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