In their drive to resist President Trump, Democrats so far have put a lot of political eggs into one basket: immigration. Their strident defense of immigrants past, present and future certainly satisfies the base — but it’s a strategic mistake that can only lead to electoral disappointment.
Let’s recall why Trump won in November. He is the first president since 1876 to lose the popular vote by more than 2 percent and still win an electoral college majority. He did so by winning five swing states — Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — with less than 50 percent of the vote. In each case, he attracted large numbers of whites without a college degree who had voted for President Obama twice. Meanwhile, many Republicans who had voted for Sen. John McCain and former Gov. Mitt Romney threw their votes away on write-ins or third-party candidates rather than vote for Hillary Clinton.
If Democrats want to win again, they must do one of two things: Attract back the Obama-Trump voter or win over the Romney-non-Trump voter. Their protestations against border security and the travel ban are not likely to do either.
Surveys show that Obama-Trump blue-collar voters like Trump’s anti-immigration stance. These voters are likely to have felt competition from immigrants legal and illegal, and they want that competition to stop. Even though many of these voters agree with Democrats on traditional economic issues like taxes and entitlement spending, their primary concern now is to protect their livelihoods and standard of living by reducing competition from foreigners living at home and abroad.
Loud opposition to Trump’s immigration policies reminds those voters every day why they no longer feel at home in today’s Democratic Party.
Wavering Romney-McCain Republicans, for their part, may be sympathetic to the plight of economic migrants, but are quite possibly worried about terrorism. By just saying “no” to Trump’s travel bans, the Democrats give nothing to the Republican or GOP-leaning independent who wants a more balanced attitude.
The Democratic Party approach, such as it is, is anything but balanced. In the party’s 2016 platform, immigration enforcement is at best an afterthought. The platform emphasizes a path to citizenship, reuniting families and ensuring that as few current immigrants as possible are removed from the country. It also denounces Trump’s proposed religious test for immigration as well as what it called his “vilification of Muslims.”
While a platform is not binding, the party’s behavior since Inauguration Day suggests that it accurately expresses Democrats’ sentiments. Everything the party and its leaders in Congress have done since the inauguration simply restates these beliefs without modification.
It seems Democrats remain stuck in the rut that led them to electoral disaster in the first place. Firmly convinced that Middle America shared their fear and loathing of Trump, the party ran one of the most issue-free campaigns in modern history. In paid ads, campaign stops and in the debates, Clinton rarely gave people who weren’t already committed Democrats or progressives a reason to vote for her. That failure explains the most telling and unexpected result on Election Day: Trump beat Clinton handily among the 18 percent of Americans who told exit pollsters they disliked both candidates.
Democrats are either unwilling to see the truth or unable to acknowledge it: They cannot win back the presidency without attracting people who disagree with some of their views. Doing that does not mean singing the same old songs louder and more clearly.
When it comes to immigration, Democrats need to ask themselves some hard questions. Can they acknowledge that the large number of immigrants in the country illegally, many of whom are relatively unskilled, gives rise to economic competition that harms job and wage prospects for voters who used to be part of their base?
Can they be pro-Muslim immigration without being blind to the fact that the very few Muslim immigrants inclined to terror can undermine public tolerance with just a few fatal attacks?
Can they admit that one can have concerns about either type of migrant without being prejudiced or racist — that there might just be some rational reason for Americans to be wary of a lax or overly trusting approach to immigration?
If Democrats can entertain and act on these thoughts, then they can begin the hard work of uniting the anti-Trump majority into a political majority. If they cannot, their resistance will be futile.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue Collar Conservatism.” He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.