Immigration: Playing with Matches
A couple of years ago, I was doing opposition research for a candidate for Congress out in western New York. I had at my disposal a copy of the Frank Luntz playbook
, which had recently been disseminated online. If you haven't read it, I recommend you take a look sometime. The specifics are a bit dated but the techniques are classic Luntz - it's a window into the mind of the GOP Congressional delegation's communications guru. (Sample line: "Remember, it's NOT drilling for oil
. It's responsible energy exploration
One thing that wasn't in the memo was how to talk about immigration. But we knew that Luntz and other GOP strategists were planning to use it as their new wedge isssue, just as they had done with gay marriage in the previous cycle. Eventually, Luntz's memo
on how to talk about immigration turned up, full of the same kind of carefully-crafted talking points. Luntz insisted that "Americans are not only ready for an overhaul of illegal immigration policy, they are demanding it."
But in one of their more significant political blunders of recent years, Republicans failed to foresee that they
would be the ones who ended up getting wedged.
Luntz never quite grasped the way the immigration debate would play out. In his playbook, he insisted on the importance of nationalizing the 2006 elections - drawing a lesson from the GOP setback of 1986, he called for an "umbrella effort to unite voters across the country to keep Republicans in office." Getting bogged down in local issues would be disastrous. Meanwhile, Luntz claimed
that his focus groups were going wild over immigration.
His warnings were directed against a Republican establishment that many conservatives feared was out of step with the party's base on this issue. But that establishment - specifically, Rove's White House - saw the field in a way Luntz and his Congressional clients could not. Immigration was not a properly national issue; it was something that resonated very differently in different parts of the country. And it threatened to undercut one of the Rovian/Compassionate Conservative faction's most cherished projects: winning the Hispanic vote and creating the permanent Republican majority.
By ramping up the immigration debate, the Luntzian faction agitated part of the conservative base - thus in turn forcing the hands of many Republican members of Congress from conservative districts. But the numbers never added up to anything but trouble for the national party. The White House, with a very different set of interests, would never give the crackdown crowd what they wanted. It became a disastrous self-fulfilling prophesy for the party's pundits and Congressional delegation, who set the base on fire, only to be themselves consumed by the flames.
And the issue still smolders. Newt Gingrich, who is a master of political rhetoric but sometimes a remarkably incompetent strategist, is putting an English-only proposal
at the center of his non-campaign campaign. Debate continues on the right (see this Max Boot thread
at Contentions), and the tone suggests that conservatives are deeply frustrated by the dilemma they've caused for themselves.
Meanwhile, Chris Bowers has pointed out
that 2006 saw a thirty
point shift among Latinos to the Democratic party. To stick with the metaphor from above, Luntz and the other GOP strategists who encouraged the immigration alarmists tried to burn down the Democrats' house - without realizing that, on immigration, their own party was far more flammable.
Labels: Frank Luntz, immigration, Republicans