Has the GOP Agenda Shifted?

And, if so, what it means for immigration

By Andrew R. Arthur on November 10, 2020

Sean Trende — the senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics — published an article last week captioned "The Future of the GOP Is Trumpy". Trende (whom I have never met, but whose analysis I respect greatly) made some interesting points therein, and if he is correct, his thesis will have significant implications for immigration policy going forward.

The article meanders a bit (a peccadillo I acknowledge in my own writing), but the fundamental premise is this: Since 1980, the Republican Party has followed the Ronald Reagan playbook — with diminishing returns. Trump rejected issues that were key to that strategy, and in so doing, has shifted the GOP platform from things like entitlement reform and foreign intervention to one that addresses the issues that are key to working-class voters.

Specifically, Trende argues that "'zombie Reaganism,' as it came to be called, became a more extreme, less politically popular agenda than Reagan had advocated." He makes clear, for instance, that 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt "Romney famously failed to connect with blue-collar voters because of his stance on fiscal issues and his culturally upscale persona."

Trump may be upscale, but he rarely lets that show. He speaks plainly (in his speeches that is; his Twitter feed often reads like a word salad), and in the vernacular of those "blue-collar voters". In this, he is a populist in the model of FDR — rich, Ivy League men whose strongest appeals were to those struggling on the fringes of the American economy.

The argument has been made for years that when it comes to immigration, the Republican Party has said one thing, but done another, in thrall to business interests who want cheap foreign labor. I would note that the opposite charge has been leveled against Democrats — that they claim to be interested in the lives of those in the "shadows", and bringing them out therefrom, but are really just seeking votes from a future electorate they created.

With respect to corporate interests in this election, Open Secrets (which is the main source for assessing political donations) reports that Biden raised $1.38 billion in this campaign — only 38.8 percent of which was from small donors investing less than $200. Trump raised about $863.5 million, of which 45 percent was from such small donors.

Biden's two biggest donors (for a combined $16 million) came from individuals involved in hedge funds — that is people who make money moving money around. Trump's fourth largest donor (Linda McMahon, at $4.5 million) co-founded the WWE (pro wrestling, a populist, and personal, favorite) and his two biggest donors (for a total of $20 million) run a railroad and an energy company (the latter building a pipeline), respectively. Those are companies that make and do things, and employ workers to accomplish those feats.

Trump's immigration agenda has focused first and foremost on "the Wall". That, however, was essentially just a metaphor for restricting illegal immigration across the Southwest border, a policy that he has carried into effect by actually constructing barriers along that border and removing incentives for migrants to enter illegally. His interior enforcement efforts have been somewhat lackluster (though not for trying), but he has increased worksite enforcement.

Worksite enforcement frees up jobs for American workers — citizens, nationals, and immigrants who are lawfully present. Trump could have done more (by mandating E-Verify, for instance), but much of what he has done in immigration has been to limit the incoming labor pool and thereby address paycheck and opportunity issues for those Americans on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

It is difficult to untangle, in reviewing the election results, the degree to which the electorate voted for or against Trump's policies (as opposed to for or against the presidential persona). Down ballot races, however, suggest that there were a number of people who liked the agenda, but not the man.

Despite strong efforts, for example, Democrats failed to win state houses that are controlled by Republicans, setting the GOP up in a strong position to control decennial redistricting. The Party of Jackson also lost at least six seats in the House of Representatives in a year when they appeared poised to instead pick them up (and "could wind up with the slimmest House majority in 20 years").

If the GOP were to follow the Trump playbook in the future, and focus more on working-class issues, how would that effect immigration?

Likely, the party would turn to an older playbook, that written by civil-rights icon (and then-Chairwoman of President Clinton's Commission on Immigration Reform), the late Barbara Jordan (a Democrat). I referenced her views in a Wednesday post, where I explained:

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) is focused on ensuring that jobs are available to Americans, but that is a commitment, more often than not, honored in the breach. Instead, those forgotten Americans are given subsidies and benefits, ostensibly in the hope that they will go away. But we cannot leave any American behind.

Jordan was clear on this point, stating six months before her death: "Immigrants with relatively low education and skills may compete for jobs and public services with the most vulnerable of Americans, particularly those who are unemployed or underemployed." Those "vulnerable Americans", she explained, [included] "inner city youth, racial and ethnic minorities, and recent immigrants who have not yet adjusted to life in the U.S."

Vowing enforcement of the INA would certainly be a start, and amending it to remove the incentives that encourage aliens to enter the United States illegally to live and work in this country would be the next logical step.

Proposing reforms of the immigration laws to ensure that aliens who enter the United States legally (both as immigrants and on nonimmigrant work visas) do not displace Americans workers — and that they will create additional job opportunities for Americans and future immigrants and will not draw down on the social safety net — would logically be on that agenda, as well.

Each of these things is doable (to the extent that they are not already mandated by law) and would be appealing to that working-class electorate.

That assumes, of course, that Democrats have not taken note of the president's success with those forgotten voters, and would adopt some (if not all) of those policies themselves.

That is not as unlikely as it may appear at first blush. Retired CIS board member Vernon Briggs noted in congressional testimony in 2003:

[E]very significant piece of immigration legislation enacted by Congress from the time that it initiated efforts to influence immigration flows in 1864 until the late 1980s bares the stamp of organized labor in its support for passage or was caused to be repealed as the result of labor opposition. Moreover, the ebbs and flows of membership in American unions since 1860 have over time generally been the inverse of immigration trends. When immigration levels decline union membership rises; when immigration levels rise, union membership falls.

Unions have been a key Democratic constituency since the 1930s. As Briggs noted, however, the AFL-CIO, for one, switched course on immigration beginning in the late 1980s, and adopted a more expansive view.

Whether they continue to do so is yet to be seen. The idea of unions is to limit the supply of labor by collectivizing, limiting the labor supply and boosting wages and benefits for union members — also primary goals of the INA. As Politico noted in September, many of those union members (especially in the building trades), favored Trump over Biden, snubbing certain unions themselves.

There is a saying on Capitol Hill: "If you don't represent your constituents, soon you won't represent your constituents." The same would logically be true of unions and their dues-paying members. It is critical to Democrats to keep unions on their side, but if the members start pushing for stricter enforcement (again, a key Trump position), it is only a matter of time before the unions do, too — forcing Democrats' hand.

Topics: Politics