In the midst of a national public outcry over the Trump administration’s family separation policy, it appears that original Trumpers like Stephen Miller—the architect and author of said policy—and Corey Lewandowski—Trump’s former campaign manager—are urging the president to put immigration front and center ahead of the 2018 midterm election.
It’s an audacious, and bad, strategy. As Lewandowski summarized it for The New York Times, “people don’t turn out to say thank you… if you want to get people motivated, you’ve got to give them a reason to vote.” He’s right about that. It’s just that the reasons he wants to give voters are the wrong ones.
It is often said in politics that if you’re explaining, you’re losing. On Monday night, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose protégé—Miller—appears to have orchestrated this policy and helped unfurl it on the nation, had to take to Fox News basically to explain how Donald Trump’s America is different from Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
That’s the ultimate explanation that proves the administration is losing here, and that while Lewandowski is right about needing to give people a reason to vote for Republicans in 2018, immigration enforcement that leads to photo spreads that look like the 21st-century version of Japanese-American internment camps probably isn’t it.
For starters, stoking fear as opposed to making promises on, say, kitchen table issues isn’t exactly a surefire bet for winning votes. It worked for Republicans when the thing to be feared was al Qaeda and the legitimately evil villain in question was Osama bin Laden. But abhorrent and evil as it is, MS-13 is not the bin Laden gang, and neither are Guatemalan fruit-pickers, housecleaners, or McDonald’s workers.
It’s 2018, and recent election results—most prominently Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial election, which should have been winnable for the MS-13 fear-stoking Republican—indicate that ginning up fear over unlawful immigration isn’t a workable strategy, by and large. And that’s setting aside that going after MS-13 is a heck of a lot more popular than, say, splitting toddlers away from their mothers.
About the only immigration-related issue that might be motivating for the president’s base and truly yield results would be pledging to get the wall built; though that sounds a little like playing to fears and engaging in hyperbole, it also sounds like infrastructure and Trump doing what he’s believed to do best (build stuff). But better “reasons to vote” still could be promised forthcoming, say, GOP-led action on the opioid crisis, or pledges to attack prescription drug prices if kept in power.
Other winning issues could be that old favorite, Infrastructure (as noted, the wall might be a part of this) or extending tax relief already given to poorer and middle-class families. That would allow the few people who might, in fact, turn out to vote to say “thank you” also turn out to vote for the “issue”—tax relief that few Democrats would actually vote to give because let’s face it, Democrats actually are for higher taxes, with very few exceptions.
The fact is, the current situation involving family separation is extraordinarily perilous for Republicans—those named Trump and otherwise. Miller and Lewandowski and others may disagree, but when you have Franklin Graham—one of the president’s staunchest and most immovable evangelical supporters—calling the administration’s policy out, joined by the Southern Baptist Convention, various other evangelical leaders and organizations, and a bunch of Catholic clergy, many of whose parishioners likely voted for Trump because he couldn’t possibly be as much of a baby-killer as Hillary Rodham Clinton, it’s apparent that you have a liability on immigration with the actual Trump base.
When Sen. Ted Cruz is introducing legislation to keep families together and Rep. Mark Meadows, allegedly Trump’s closest ally in the House, is doing the same, it’s clear that a major, real-life immigration policy being implemented has become the issue for opponents of the administration’s policy, be they on the left or the right.
While there may be some blame to be shared beyond the quarters of Miller, Sessions, Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen, and immigration restrictionist groups who are thrilled at the policy’s execution and have been urging something like it for years, the fact is that family separation is making it tough for immigration policy to be the motivating factor for people to vote for Republicans in 2018.
While Americans believe we should be able to decide who goes in and out of our country, that we are a sovereign nation, and that the law should mean something, by and large, we don’t seem to be supportive of a policy that reportedly is currently seeing kids still in diapers stuck in holding facilities apart from their parents—facilities where if they cry, they cannot even be cuddled, held or touched, in order to comfort them.
Before the very worst, most shocking, most recent coverage, pictures, video and audio hit, CNN and Quinnipiac polls were showing that fully two-thirds of respondents opposed the family separation policy. In all likelihood, that number will tick upwards unless the policy is ended. Also, the policy will probably prove more of a lasting problem for the GOP in states like Arizona, Nevada, Florida and perhaps even Texas, where demographics are changing and being a hardass on immigration apparently is so little a selling point that Cruz—not remotely an “open borders” guy—is trying to end family separation.
Lewandowski is right: Few voters turn out to say thank you; they need a pledge from the GOP that they’re proactively voting for the party to get them to fulfill. The wall may be it, but nothing else immigration-related is likely to be, if the last few days are any guide. Trump should get back to some of his other core issues on the campaign trail: Ending the opioid crisis, bringing down drug prices, fixing potholes, and guaranteeing good health care for all Americans, even if his preferred methodology for that makes this libertarian’s skin crawl.
Liz Mair is a longtime proponent of comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship for some unlawful immigrants.