If you’re looking for signs that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is serious about seeking the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, you could do worse than his appearance this past weekend on Fox News Sunday, in which Walker slogged through what has become a rite of passage for GOP White House aspirants: the rightward lurch/mea culpa on immigration reform.
Speaking with Chris Wallace, Walker tried presenting himself as a principled opponent of all things “amnesty”-related: “I don't believe in amnesty. And part of the reason why I made that a firm position is I look at the way that this president has mishandled that issue.” He believes it! His position is firm! Wallace, however, brought up all the things Walker has said in the past supporting comprehensive immigration reform, some of them as late as 2013, and Walker admitted that his position wasn’t always as “firm” as it is now. “My view has changed,” Walker explained. “I'm flat out saying it. I'm – candidates can say that. Sometimes they don't.”
It’s no great secret why Walker’s views on immigration have become more conservative over time: conservatives have made opposition to immigration reform one of the movement’s defining attributes. This opposition is so strong it impels them to do foolish things, like spending two months threatening to cut off funding to the Department of Homeland Security to prevent Obama from implementing a deportation relief program for undocumented immigrants. For many conservatives, anything that isn’t related to border security is “amnesty,” and a would-be presidential candidate who wants to get right with the base will pander to that sentiment. Walker’s also been taking some heat from the right over his past support for immigration reform – National Review reported last month on a 2002 county resolution Walker backed that supported “comprehensive immigration reform.”
What’s amusing about Walker’s shift is that with one breath he congratulates himself for his firm opposition to “amnesty,” and in the next breath he congratulates himself for having the courage to admit that that hasn’t always been his position. He’s not exactly staking out uncharted ground here – the recent history of Republican presidential politics is littered with candidates who’ve had agonizing rightward shifts on immigration. Longtime comprehensive reform supporter John McCain said during a 2008 Republican debate that he’d have voted against his own 2006 immigration bill (which contained a path to citizenship) “because we know what the situation is today. The people want the border secured first.” Mitt Romney flip-flopped on immigration several times before deciding that “self-deportation” was the way a “severely conservative” candidate would approach the issue.
The current crop of potential candidates is full of immigration apostates. Rick Perry flamed out in 2012 partly because he backed in-state tuition for undocumented immigrant children in Texas. Now he brags about sending troops to the border and poses as a tough-guy enforcer of immigration law. Rand Paul has taken just about every position known to man on immigration reform, though unlike Scott Walker he’ll deny ever having held any position beyond the one he most recently espoused.
And, of course, there’s Marco Rubio. Like Walker, Rubio admits changing his mind on immigration, though he’s a bit cagier about it. Rubio acknowledges that he’s committed past sins, but pushes the blame off onto Barack Obama, thus redirecting the conversation from his flip-flop to the more GOP-friendly subject of Obama being a lawless tyrant. At CPAC last week, Rubio cracked wise with Sean Hannity about the unpopularity of his push for a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013, but said that he’s learned that “you can't even have a conversation about that until people believe and know, not just believe but it's proven to them that future illegal immigration will be controlled.” And, per Rubio, the reason we can’t have this conversation is because of Barack Obama:
You can't just tell people you're going to secure the border, we're going to do E-Verify. You have to do that, they have to see it, they have to see it working, and then they're going to have a reasonable conversation with you about the other parts, but they're not going to even want to talk about that until that's done first. And what's happened over the last two years, the migratory crisis this summer, the two executive orders, that's even more true than it's been.
He made the same argument in his new book: “No matter what enforcement mechanisms are written into law, this administration will simply ignore them. The result is a stalemate on an issue of critical importance.” Because Rubio needs conservative backing if he’s to become president, he can’t acknowledge the reality that conservatives dashed his ambitions on immigration reform. So he blames Obama instead. Not exactly a profile in courage, but at least he has company.
Really the only serious 2016 Republican contender who hasn’t made a big show of repenting on immigration reform (yet) is Jeb Bush, who’s decided that he can tough it out and raise enough money to buy conservatives’ loyalty. But he’s an exception to what’s become the norm: potential Republican presidential candidates eagerly abandoning moderation on immigration reform in order to curry favor with the base. Scott Walker fits neatly into that pattern.