First, let's acknowledge once again that the Great Whitebread Hope from Wisconsin seems to have everyone in the political establishment mesmerized by his alleged strategic and tactical brilliance. Sure, he makes epic gaffes over and over again, but that cannot take anything away from the fact that he barely won a recall election and two swing-state elections in years in which Republicans ran the table. Why this is considered political genius remains a question for the ages. However, there can be no doubt that much of the Republican base loves him and much of the Democratic commentariat sees him as a very serious threat.
So when the news hit that David Koch had told a gathering at a Manhattan fundraiser that the nominee should be Scott Walker, it was as if there was nothing left to talk about. The deciders had decided.
But then something kind of funny happened. Walker's recently terminated spokesperson sent out a series of notable tweets:
Internal polling must be looking dubious, showing attrition to more grassroots-conservative-
preferred candidates for him to try this one.
— Liz Mair (@LizMair) April 20, 2015
Interesting that it's being reported that Walker got the Koch nod today, bc I'm hearing that Koch folks really pissed re: imm flip-flop.
— Liz Mair (@LizMair) April 21, 2015
David Koch then made a statement walking back this apparent endorsement:
While I think Governor Walker is terrific, let me be clear, I am not endorsing or supporting any candidate for President at this point in time.
They are now reportedly going to hold an "audition" of sorts during the summer for the Kochs' primary Prom King. (Apparently their earlier "Koch Summit" was just a casual mixer.)
So what, exactly, did Scott Walker say that appears to have made the Kochs do such an about-face in record time? Well, it's a doozy. Walker, you see, was once a "pro-immigration reform" Republican, which is likely one of the reasons the Koch brothers back him. Like most of the more libertarian-minded Big Business Republicans, they tend toward a more moderate stance on immigration. It's good for business in a number of ways (for both good and bad reasons). Walker, being a proven anti-union, pro-immigration governor, was naturally at the top of their list of nominees. He had recently "moderated" his stance on illegal immigration but it was widely assumed to be a mild feint to the right for the purposes of winning the nomination. It brought him into line with all the other candidates like Rubio and Bush who had once also been pro-reform, so it was no harm-no foul as far as the primary was concerned.
But yesterday he went a step further. He appeared on Glenn Beck's radio show and he said this:
“In terms of legal immigration, how we need to approach that going forward is saying — the next president and the next Congress need to make decisions about a legal immigration system that’s based on, first and foremost, on protecting American workers and American wages. Because the more I’ve talked to folks, I’ve talked to [Alabama Sen. Jeff] Sessions and others out there — but it is a fundamentally lost issue by many in elected positions today — is what is this doing for American workers looking for jobs, what is this doing to wages. And we need to have that be at the forefront of our discussion going forward.”
It's hard not to fall down laughing (or lose your lunch) over the most notorious union buster in America waxing on about protecting American jobs, but he's the last person to understand the irony of his comments. But by taking a position against legal immigration, he's just placed himself to the right of Ted Cruz on this issue. He's out in Ben Carson land. Not to mention that he's obliterated the last tattered shreds of a conservative argument to appeal to Hispanic and other ethnic groups: the idea that illegal immigration is unfair to legal immigrants who've been "waiting in line" to come to this country. Walker wants to close down the line altogether. Only the most hardcore neo-Confederates like Sessions want to go that far.
Igor Bobic in the Huffington Post explained the possible reasoning:
By aligning himself with an immigration hawk like Sessions, Walker may be hoping to placate conservatives wary over his previous support for a pathway to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants. Walker’s strategy is somewhat reminiscent of then-Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who, faced with similar questions over his devotion to the conservative cause in 2011, memorably tacked far right of his GOP rivals by endorsing ‘self-deportation.’ Yet not even Romney, who lost the Latino vote to Obama by more than 40 percentage points in November 2012, supported curbing legal immigration, a concept at the core of what it means to be American.
A bunch of Republican senators were appalled when they heard about this. (They can count votes ...) Talking Points Memo got them on the record.
Arizona Senator John McCain: "I think most statistics show that they fill part of the workforce that are much needed. We have, and I'm a living example of, the aging population. We need these people in the workforce legally.
Utah Senator Orrin Hatch: "I basically think that's poppycock. We know that when we graduate PhDs and master's degrees and engineers, we don't have enough of any of those. ... The fact is you can always point to some negatives, but the positives are that we need an awful lot more STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] people. ... Frankly a lot of us are for legal immigration and for solving this problem.
Ohio Senator Rob Portman: "We want legal immigration. ... As a party we've always embraced immigrants coming here legally, following the rules. And it's enriched our country immeasurably. It's who we are. It's the fabric of our success."
Senate Republican Conference Chair John Thune: "I think if you talk to businesses in this country, they need workers. We have a workforce issue in this country and I know in my home state of South Dakota where the unemployment rate is 2.3 percent, they can't find workers. So having a robust legal immigration process helps us fill jobs that otherwise wouldn't be getting filled."
But recall that Walker said explicitly that he's working with Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions on this issue. And Jeff Sessions had a lot to say about this in his "IMMIGRATION HANDBOOK FOR THE NEW REPUBLICAN MAJORITY" dated January 2015. It's a fascinating document and well worth reading. It is the perfect example of right-wing populism at its most traditionally xenophobic.
He sets forth an argument that income inequality is not a result of the tax structure or the concentrated power of wealth but rather the result of immigrants stealing the jobs of natural born Americans:
The last four decades have witnessed the following: a period of record, uncontrolled immigration to the United States; a dramatic rise in the number of persons receiving welfare; and a steep erosion in middle class wages.
But the only “immigration reforms” discussed in Washington are those pushed by interest groups who want to remove what few immigration controls are left in order to expand the record labor supply even further.
The principal economic dilemma of our time is the very large number of people who either are not working at all, or not earning a wage great enough to be financially independent. The surplus of available labor is compounded by the loss of manufacturing jobs due to global competition and reduced demand for workers due to automation. What sense does it make to continue legally importing millions of low-wage workers to fill jobs while sustaining millions of current residents on welfare?
He put it into philosophical and historical perspective:
We need make no apology in rejecting an extreme policy of sustained mass immigration, which the public repudiates and which the best economic evidence tells us undermines wage growth and economic mobility. Here again, the dialect operates in reverse: the “hardliners” are those who refuse even the most modest immigration controls on the heels of four decades of large-scale immigration flows (both legal and illegal), and increased pressures on working families.
Conservativism is by its nature at odds with the extreme, the untested, the ahistorical.
The last large-scale flow of legal immigration (from approximately 1880–1920) was followed by a sustained slowdown that allowed wages to rise, assimilation to occur, and the middle class to emerge.
This is heady stuff for the base of the GOP. It’s very much the essence of the kind of right-wing populism we’ve seen in the past and there’s been interest in this idea within the party for a very long time. The usurpation of Eric Cantor was arguably the first shot across the bow of the Republican leadership on this issue for 2016. There's little doubt that base agitation over immigration was one of the animating issues that led to his demise. If you listen to talk radio, the tone is still nearly hysterical. So there's an audience for this message.a
Sessions, being a bit more polished than Walker, put it this way when asked about the comments:
"I thought it was a good statement that he made, which is saying, 'I'm gonna ask the question, what is it going to do for wages and job prospects for my constituents and the American people as I analyze how to create a proper immigration flow into America. We're not going to end it, we're going to maintain immigration."
The question most other Republican leaders are asking themselves is, "How are we ever going to win the presidency if we keep alienating Latinos like that?" And yes, business likes immigration too, but they have always been able to finesse it quietly behind the scenes while their candidates throw anti-immigrant red meat at the base. That's not going to work going forward. Little Latino pitchers have big ears. And their own TV networks.
I confess I was surprised to read that the Kochs had put their billions on the line for Scott Walker in the first place. I understand the desire for a winning young newcomer, but remain bewildered why anyone would think Walker is that guy. His ratings at home in Wisconsin are in the dirt (and they were never sky high to begin with) and the fact that he's been pretty much a Koch and Club for Growth puppet is no endorsement -- he's been so clumsy about it he's left a trail of evidence of dark money collusion in his wake. He's been very amateurish on the trail so far and now he's heading off on a wild tangent over one of the most delicate issues confronting the Republican Party.
At the end of the Koch Summit last winter, the consensus seemed to be that Marco Rubio was the fresh face they were looking for. He's young, good-looking and malleable to their agenda. And he's Latino, obviously. Whether he's any more ready for prime time than Walker remains to be seen. But after Walker's faux pas this week, it's likely that he's going to get a good close second look. And there's always Jeb if things don't work out with the new kids. What he lacks in charisma he makes up for in dullness. At this point, that may be the best they can do.