An immigration lesson for the GOP

Pundits and talk-radio hosts keep telling Congressional Republicans, “Get tough on immigration–it’s the only way to save your skin.” They point to polls like the one in Time this week that show that 82 percent of people don’t think the government is doing enough to keep illegals out. Or, an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll in ...

609003_caution5.jpg
609003_caution5.jpg

Pundits and talk-radio hosts keep telling Congressional Republicans, “Get tough on immigration--it’s the only way to save your skin.” They point to polls like the one in Time this week that show that 82 percent of people don’t think the government is doing enough to keep illegals out. Or, an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll in which 71 percent of respondents said that they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who favored tighter immigration controls. But a quick-glance across the Atlantic should give the GOP pause about the short-term political consequences of getting tough on immigration, let-alone the long-term ones. In 2001, the only two issues on which the Tories had an advantage over New Labour were immigration and asylum. The Tories decided to run hard on the issue, they even claimed that Britain would turn into a “foreign land” under Labour and promised that bogus asylum seekers would face “immediate deportation.” But the more they talked about immigration, the more certain it became that Labour won win by a landslide. The same dynamic played out in 2005. The Tories put up posters with the tag line, “Are you thinking what we're thinking? It's not racist to impose limits on immigration.” Again, it did them no good. Voters had a more negative view of them at the end of the campaign than at the beginning. So, why did the Tories reap no electoral advantage from being in tune with the public mood on immigration? First, it is very hard to take a tough line on immigration without sounding unpleasant and mean spirited—and therefore repelling moderate swing voters, such as suburban women. More importantly, it obscures your message on other issues. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were successful in large part because they made their parties the parties of aspiration and achievement. Talking tough on immigration makes it much harder to be that party: You sound inherently pessimistic about your country and its future. Immigrants are the classic example of those determined to better themselves. How can you both be the party of aspiration and against those with aspirations? Whatever the polls say, Congressional Republicans would be well advised to avoid turning '06 into a border war.

Pundits and talk-radio hosts keep telling Congressional Republicans, “Get tough on immigration–it’s the only way to save your skin.” They point to polls like the one in Time this week that show that 82 percent of people don’t think the government is doing enough to keep illegals out. Or, an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll in which 71 percent of respondents said that they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who favored tighter immigration controls. But a quick-glance across the Atlantic should give the GOP pause about the short-term political consequences of getting tough on immigration, let-alone the long-term ones.
 
In 2001, the only two issues on which the Tories had an advantage over New Labour were immigration and asylum. The Tories decided to run hard on the issue, they even claimed that Britain would turn into a “foreign land” under Labour and promised that bogus asylum seekers would face “immediate deportation.” But the more they talked about immigration, the more certain it became that Labour won win by a landslide. The same dynamic played out in 2005. The Tories put up posters with the tag line, “Are you thinking what we’re thinking? It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration.” Again, it did them no good. Voters had a more negative view of them at the end of the campaign than at the beginning.
 
So, why did the Tories reap no electoral advantage from being in tune with the public mood on immigration? First, it is very hard to take a tough line on immigration without sounding unpleasant and mean spirited—and therefore repelling moderate swing voters, such as suburban women.
 
More importantly, it obscures your message on other issues. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were successful in large part because they made their parties the parties of aspiration and achievement. Talking tough on immigration makes it much harder to be that party: You sound inherently pessimistic about your country and its future. Immigrants are the classic example of those determined to better themselves. How can you both be the party of aspiration and against those with aspirations?
 
Whatever the polls say, Congressional Republicans would be well advised to avoid turning ’06 into a border war.

James Forsyth is assistant editor at Foreign Policy.

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