Scott Walker Goes Nativist

Last week, Scott Walker opened up a new front in his party’s civil war over immigration. In an interview with eminent conspiracist Glenn Beck, Walker moved the GOP debate beyond amnesty and border patrols, suggesting that the cost of legal immigration to American workers was “a lost issue among many in elected positions today”:

            “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, first and foremost, on protecting American workers and American wages.”

That rhetoric earned Walker the derision of the Wall Street Journal and the adulation of Breitbart Media. Harry Enton of FiveThirtyEight sees little benefit for Walker in such a trade-off:

            “Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker just stepped in it…Walker is considered a top-tier contender in large part because he appeals to both the GOP’s conservative base and its more moderate establishment wing…Advocating for cutting legal immigration upsets that balance, hurting his ability to compete in the invisible primary, the pre-voting race for endorsements and money.”

Enton is right that Walker’s best selling-point is his capacity to bridge the gaps in his party’s coalition. But I think the Wisconsin Governor knew exactly where he was stepping. It’s no coincidence that Walker tacked right on immigration the same week that Marco Rubio launched his campaign for the Presidency. Rubio is Walker’s chief competition for the title of consensus candidate: Both offer the base a chance to thwart the coronation of another Bush, while being rhetorically inoffensive enough to sneak a reactionary agenda past a national electorate.

Rubio is better positioned to eat into Walker’s support among the establishment than among the base, and the opposite is true for Walker. For the GOP donor class, Rubio’s only unique liability is frequent dry-mouth. To the base, he’s associated with an immigration reform bill that’s held in roughly the same esteem as Sharia law. Thus, if Walker wants to retain his status as unity candidate, his best bet is to make Rubio unacceptable to the grasroots, which means drawing a stark contrast between himself and the Florida Senator on immigration.

That task is complicated by Walker’s own history on the issue. In 2006, when he was still Milwaukee County Executive, Walker signed a resolution pledging his support for the McCain-Kennedy immigration reform bill. That legislation would have created a pathway to citizenship for 12 million undocumented immigrants.

Two weeks ago, if you typed “Scott Walker immigration problem” into Google, you’d have seen scores of articles describing Walker’s past softness on immigration as a liability. Today, that same search yields a cornucopia of think-pieces lamenting the political dangers of his hardline nativism. At this point in the campaign, the latter is a good problem for Walker to have.

In his interview with Beck, Walker didn’t commit to any specific position on legal immigration. He said just enough to get scolded by RINOs, and obscure his past sympathies for “amnesty.” And while he may have alienated some potential donors, so long as he retains the support of the Koch brothers, he won’t need too many other oligarchs.

It’s true that the Kochs are pro-immigration, but I think they (and the GOP establishment more broadly) know the way this game is played. Just as the big money donors of the Democractic party knew, even while candidate Obama was excoriating NAFTA in 2007, President Obama would be a loyal servant of their trade agenda in 2015.

The President of the United States has not  deviated from the corporate consensus on immigration or free trade since at least the Reagan years. That’s unlikely to change in an era of unprecedented political spending. On these matters, the primaries are effectively a con game. And taking a browbeating from the Wall Street Journal op-ed page only strengthens Walker’s con.