The ever-insightful Jay Cost on the immigration debate:
“In The Semi-Sovereign People, political scientist E. E. Schattschneider asked the question: Of all the potential political conflicts within society, why do only a few become active? His answer has to do with the power to set the agenda. He wrote, “Political conflict is not like an intercollegiate debate in which the opponents agree in advance on a definition of the issues. As a matter of fact, the definition of the alternatives is the supreme instrument of power. . . . He who determines what politics is about runs the country, because the definition of alternatives is the choice of conflicts, and the choice of conflicts allocates power.”
A recurring theme on these pages is that one of the most important principles of political strategy is that he, who frames the terms of the debate, wins the issue.
“This is a point that conservatives would do well to keep in mind as the immigration reform debate rolls on. In particular, they should wonder why the range of alternatives has essentially been reduced to this stark choice: The Republican party can reach out to Hispanics by supporting the Senate immigration bill, or it can wander in the wilderness as a political minority for the next generation.”
The Senate immigration bill is a classic case of winning the issue by seizing the initiative and framing the terms of the debate. The concern to solve the problem of illegal immigration came out of nowhere after the 2012 presidential election. It was at best a minor issue during the campaign, and is - even now - considered the average American voter to be a low priority.
“Why exactly are the GOP’s electoral prospects so dependent on this one issue? In 2012, Obama bested Romney in one group after another. Romney did not win enough Catholics, or middle-aged people, or women, or working-class voters, or Midwesterners, or whatever.”
“Who has exercised the power to set the agenda here, and why have they set it in this way? Above all, we may look to the president, whose greatest asset in our political system is the power to set the agenda, to define the alternatives. Barack Obama is looking for a legacy item in his second term; seeing how far he stands from House Republicans on fiscal issues, immigration is his best opportunity.
After that, we have the national Democratic machine, which is interested in immigration reform because of the potential votes it could yield down the line, the union members it might add, and the activist fervor it will stoke."
“None of these groups necessarily has the best interests of the Republican party at heart. In fact, the interests of Obama and his party are perfectly inverse to those of the GOP.”
A good rule of thumb in politics is to not take advice from your opponents (or their dupes on your side). It sounds obvious stated this way, but it is amazing how easily the media can buffalo wooly-headed or weak-willed conservatives towards taking harmful advice.
“On the issue of immigration, conservatives are facing the same type of trap that Democrats have faced over the years when trying to pursue the ‘values voters.’ After every Democratic loss on the national stage since 1988, a range of pundits have highlighted the Democratic party’s deficiencies on issues surrounding guns, God, gays, abortion, and so on. But in most instances (gun control being a notable exception), the Democratic party has not really budged on the ‘culture war.”’
Consistency is a very important political virtue. This is why widely unpopular measures such as gay marriage eventually won. The consistency of gun owners is the reason why the momentum is now on our side. (If we had heeded the advice of ‘politically savvy’ conservative moderates, we would be disarmed by now.)
“Democrats learned over time that there is no getting to the Republican party’s right on these culture issues. Instead, they have tried to appeal to these voters via other channels, like economic populism. The best example of this strategy is none other than Barack Obama. After the Democratic defeat in 2004, it was conventional wisdom that the party had to find a way to win over blue-collar guys driving pickup trucks, which meant blunting the GOP advantage on the culture war. Obama went in precisely the opposite direction. He refused to pursue those voters on the terms set by the Republican party, and instead formed a different coalition altogether.”
You can’t win by sticking a moist finger in the air. Your campaign theme and its slogans have to reflect your overall philosophy of government, otherwise they won’t be believed. You also can’t woo voters with a negative policy. In other words, the slogan, “vote for me because I don’t believe x (any more, and I’m sorry about the time I did)” is lame.
“There’s a lesson in this. The constraints of the GOP coalition limit the party’s ability to make identity-based appeals to Hispanic voters (or any ethnic group, for that matter). The Democrats will always get to the GOP’s left when it comes to identity politics. In the case of immigration reform, the desire by most Republican voters to respect the rule of law will keep the party from offering an amnesty package to Hispanics as generous as Democrats can. The latter will thus pocket any concessions that the former provide, and then ask for more later.”
You can’t outbid the other side on their issues. They can always just raise the stakes because they have more headroom. Just as the Republicans can’t outbid Obama on amnesty, the Dems can’t outbid the GOP on tax cuts or gun rights. So don’t try.
“A winning Republican candidate will be one who can harmonize the interests of swing voters—be they Hispanic, Protestant, female, lower income, or whatever—with those of the party’s conservative base.”
This is a really, really important point. You begin with your most devoted supporters and work your way outwards to the less and less committed, until you corral the Low Information Voter a few days before the election. Done right, you achieve 50% plus one on election-day.
The Red Tory/RINO way – throw your core supporters to the wolves while castigating them as ‘extremists’ in order to appeal to the ‘moderates’ – never works. First of all, you alienate your core supporters whose time and money you need. Second, you turn off the Low Information Voter, who you have misread to be a ‘moderate’. By and large, these voters don’t care about any issues at all. They base their decisions on more intuitive matters, such as leadership. Among the way they identify the latter is the degree to which each candidate is able to motivate his core supporters.
A good example is Obama and McCain in 2008. They saw the near-hysterical, cult-like following that Barack Obama generated and said whoah! This contrasted starkly to the cold mistrust and hostility that McCain inspired in conservatives. They concluded: Obama hero, McCain zero.