Politics & Policy

Tightrope Walker

(Win McNamee/Getty)
Scott Walker impresses conservatives, but he still needs to settle on an immigration policy.

Does Scott Walker have an immigration problem? While many of the Wisconsin governor’s potential 2016 rivals have put forward concrete plans in recent years to fix what everyone now acknowledges is a broken immigration system, Walker has been conspicuously vague when asked for his own views on the issue.

Governors gearing up for a presidential run often struggle to get themselves up to speed on national issues. While they can tout their executive experience, which appeals to both rank-and-file Republicans and the party’s top-dollar donors, they often have a steeper hill to climb than their Senate colleagues when it comes to projecting authority on national issues. The Wisconsin governor, currently enjoying a media boomlet, is no exception. On immigration, an issue that will unquestionably play an outsize role in the GOP presidential primary, his failure to articulate a clear position to date is particularly glaring.

Walker isn’t alone in his reluctance to get specific on the issues. New Jersey governor Chris Christie has deflected questions on issues including immigration, stating bluntly that he will not articulate a position until he becomes a presidential candidate. And after a much-lampooned 2012 bid, former Texas governor Rick Perry has spent the better part of the past two years studying up on foreign affairs, health care, and energy policy.

As for Walker, questions are being raised about his potential weakness on the issue after he struggled, in an appearance on ABC’s This Week earlier this month, to give a straight answer when asked for his solution to the ongoing crisis on the southern border. Instead, Walker offered host Martha Raddatz the usual boilerplate about his displeasure with the way Congress has handled immigration reform and emphasized his support for securing the border — a position that, unsurprisingly, enjoys a bipartisan consensus. He threw in some head-scratchers for good measure, such as, “I also think we need to enforce the legal system.”

But on the issue of how to address the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally, he was harder to pin down. Walker attempted to walk a fine line between opposing amnesty and leaving the door open for a pathway to citizenship — so fine a line, in fact, that Raddatz pressed him to clarify whether he thought those immigrants should be given legal status or deported.

“I’m saying that in the end, we need to enforce the laws of the United States and we need to find a way for people to have a legitimate, legal immigration system in this country, and that doesn’t mean amnesty,” he said.

After the show, a spokesman rushed in to clarify the governor’s remarks. His communications director, Tom Evenson, explained that a pathway to citizenship that requires individuals to face penalties to gain citizenship does not qualify as “amnesty,” a position he repeated in an e-mail to National Review Online.

Can voters read between the lines? The latest hire to Walker’s Our American Revival PAC, his campaign holding pen, is GOP operative Gregg Keller, who has voiced his support for immigration reform and called Florida senator Marco Rubio, one of Walker’s potential rivals for the Republican nomination, “the future of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.” Walker himself name-checked Rubio — favorably — several times in that ABC interview.

That’s no substitute for a substantive policy, and the seemingly deliberate ambiguity of his answer is of a piece with many of Walker’s statements on immigration in recent years. He has tried to use the nebulousness of buzzwords like “amnesty” and “pathway to citizenship” – which can be used interchangeably or to differentiate between policies, depending on the speaker – to his advantage. On the one hand, he claims to oppose the former, beefing up his bona fides with the conservative base. On the other, he claims to support the latter. As Politifact Wisconsin put it, Walker’s efforts to walk along this particular political tightrope have led to “seemingly contradictory” statements, and he’s been “hard to pin down” on the issue.

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Walker’s initial entry into the immigration fray came during his first successful gubernatorial campaign, in May 2010. Amid the debate over Arizona SB 1070, a controversial law that permitted the state’s law-enforcement officials to require proof of legal status for individuals suspected of being in the country illegally, Walker said he had “serious concerns” about the possibility of enacting a similar law in the Badger State, including the potential for racial profiling. Five days later, after conservatives threatened to shift their support to his primary opponent, a campaign spokesman said Walker had done his research and come to support the Arizona law. In November of that year, Walker, then the governor-elect, said he was “disappointed” by a federal judge’s decision to block the Arizona law and again vowed to sign a similar law if the legislation made it to his desk.

Two years later, when an Arizona-style bill was on the verge of surfacing in the Wisconsin legislature, Walker appeared to back away from his support for it. But he refused to take a strong stance either in support of or in opposition to the measure. Instead, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that Walker said he would “push to make sure [a similar law] didn’t come to me” out of the legislature, because it wasn’t a priority at the time. He was mum on the merits of the policy, and on whether he would sign it if it ended up on his desk, and he encouraged state lawmakers to shift their attention elsewhere. They did, and Walker was never faced with a decision.

While Walker has constantly advocated fixing the legal immigration process, he has deliberately refrained from endorsing any specific proposal or policy, although he has suggested he will put forward his own immigration plan if he chooses to run. He has also been elusive about whether he supports a pathway to citizenship. In various appearances in national and local media, Walker has crafted a position that unmistakably rejects deporting millions of undocumented immigrants as a solution. But from there it gets fuzzy.

In February 2013, while at Politico’s State Solutions Conference, the governor said immigrants going through the process legally should be prioritized, and he left open the possibility of making that process more forgiving. “After that, if there’s a way to set up a process so that you enable people to come in and have a legal pathway to do that, that’s something we’ve got to embrace,” he said. Walker seemed to go even farther five months later, when he told the Wausau Daily Herald’s editorial board that “it makes sense” that immigrants in the country illegally should eventually receive citizenship after meeting certain requirements, including penalties. At the same time, he called such a solution a “Band-Aid” if the legal system itself isn’t fixed.

In e-mails with NRO, Walker’s spokesman was clear that the governor is committed to securing the border and fixing the current system, as well as to enforcing the laws on the books. On whether those currently in the country illegally should be able to obtain citizenship, he said the governor believes it “makes sense” to receive citizenship after facing penalties, waiting periods, and other requirements, though he offered no concrete proposal.

How long can Walker walk the immigration tightrope? One can already see several of his potential adversaries in the upcoming primary campaign, which is now well underway, pouncing on his equivocations. Walker may be leading in some polls, but in the spotlight on a debate stage, he will have to stop splitting hairs or pay a steep political price.

— Andrew Johnson is an editorial associate at National Review Online.

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