Will Trump’s Immigration Gamble Pay Off?

Downplaying a good economy in favor of an appeal to the base on borders breaks all the rules.

Last Friday’s jobs report was just the latest in a series of statistics that allow Republicans to boast of a booming economy. The unemployment rate is at a 50-year low. Hiring is up. Wages are up. And growth is at a robust rate that few thought possible a few years ago as President Barack Obama presided over an anemic post-recession economy.

Under normal circumstances, such good economic news would be the centerpiece of any incumbent party’s midterm-election campaign. But that’s not the case for Republicans in 2018.

Some GOP candidates are talking about the importance of not allowing a Democratic Congress to get in the way of an administration whose tax cuts and, even more important, regulatory-reform policies have fueled the economic upturn. But in a political environment whose tone is set by President Donald Trump, the White House’s decision to use illegal immigration as the Republicans’ closing argument is drowning such voices out. That sets up many to ponder whether any losses on Tuesday will be the fault of the president’s decision rather than their own shortcomings or the historic problems that midterms pose for parties in power.

Trump hasn’t shied away from such potential criticisms.

“They all say, ‘Speak about the economy, speak about the economy,’” Trump said Friday during a rally in West Virginia. “Well, we have the greatest economy in the history of our country. But sometimes it’s not as exciting to talk about the economy.”

While the talk of the greatest in history may be typical Trump hyperbole, there’s little doubt that things are going very well. But the topic doesn’t seem to interest him all that much. More to the point, he doesn’t think economic statistics are the thing that will bring out the working-class or conservative-base voters who put him in the White House in 2016.

He knows that the lines that give him the greatest response at the campaign rallies he loves so much are the ones about protecting the border, building the wall, and the threat posed by an “invasion” of Central American asylum seekers and illegal immigrants.

Just about everything we know about modern political history would tell us that he’s wrong about this.

Ever since 1992, Bill Clinton campaign guru James Carville’s dictum that reminded politicians the answer to the question of what decided elections — “The economy, stupid” — has been treated as gospel by consultants. Any president who can run on a booming economy, or at least a clear recovery, has done so, even though satisfaction with a boom is not as effective an issue as dissatisfaction with a downturn. The opposition, be it Republican or Democrat, has always treated a bad economy as its No. 1 issue.

But Trump has spent the year trying to prove Carville wrong.

While economics would have dictated the campaign strategy of any other administration, as Trump has already shown us in so many other ways, the old rules no longer govern American politics.

The problem starts in a White House where the presidential Twitter account remains its loudest means of communication. Instead of the administration engaging in an all-out media offensive designed to focus the country on the positive reports, the emphasis has always been on “counter-punching” against whatever was the emphasis of either media critics or the Democrats.

Trump is always the center of attention, and any time the focus moves elsewhere, it’s a given that the president will do, say, or tweet something to get it back on him. Over the course of the past year, that has meant a steady diet of attacks on the Mueller investigation, Stormy Daniels, or Michael Cohen rather than tweets touting economic achievements.

Moreover, Trump believes that the experience of his successful 2016 presidential campaign — which was conducted more like a concert tour than a modern campaign — means that he thinks he has no more need to listen to the “experts” on this question than on any other.

His instincts tell him that riling up the base, speaking to their anger and fears about illegal immigration and the liberal culture war against traditional values, is what works. And after his 2016 upset, who’s to say that he’s completely wrong?

The answer to that question is that most pundits believe it is this same formula that will lose Republicans the House of Representatives if not the Senate, too, in what liberals are still hoping will be a blue wave.

The same factors that helped create Trump’s success, including the dominance of social media and the focus on his personality, have drowned out discussion of the economy.

Rather than try to change the subject from a referendum on the legitimacy of the Trump presidency that many Democrats embraced as part of a “resistance” strategy, the White House took up that challenge. In a year when all the enthusiasm seemed to be with Democrats, who were eager to make the bad dream of 2016 go away, convincing Trump voters that the midterms were about preventing his opponents from impeaching him became a priority.

That seemed to be proved right by the reaction to the Democratic efforts to stop the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. It was only after Senate Democrats were perceived to be unfairly smearing Kavanaugh that GOP voter enthusiasm for the midterms rose. But continuing to argue about Kavanaugh’s confirmation was not something Republicans could do for a full month after his victory.

It was at that point that Trump began to go back to his familiar themes on illegal immigration and to double down on them. The caravan of Honduran immigrants traveling through Mexico was the perfect foil for Trump, and while not even all Republicans may have seen the ragtag group as much of a threat to U.S. security, the brazen nature of the effort and the likelihood that most who were in it would be released even if caught once they crossed the border sparked anger on the right.

Yet to Trump’s critics — on the right as well as the left — the convoy also illustrated the president’s weaknesses.

The focus on immigration provided fodder for mainstream media to claim that Trump wished to stir up hate or that he was a racist. The over-the-top claims about the danger posed by the caravan and whether its members were really criminals or from the Middle East and posing a threat of terrorism made it easy to dismiss an otherwise strong case that Democrats arguing for open borders or abolishing ICE were undermining the rule of law it posed.

Moreover, it is conventional wisdom that talking about the caravan and the threat from illegal immigrants is driving away moderate Republicans, especially women, in the competitive suburban districts where control of the House will be decided.

They may be right about that. But it is also possible that those seats were bound to be lost anyway. What Trump needed was an issue that would ensure that red-state Republicans turned out in the numbers needed to knock off Democratic incumbents in competitive Senate races, not moderates who were already turned off by him.

There is much to criticize in the way that Trump speaks about immigration, as there is about his discourse about any issue. But if we’re confining our analysis to what will best help his party minimize its midterm losses, the decision to go all in on immigration was probably not wrong.

If Republicans have a bad night, there will be plenty of blame to share among Republicans, and Trump will deserve plenty of it for energizing his opponents. But the idea that sticking to economic arguments would have secured a Republican victory in 2018 is based on an outdated paradigm that Trump helped scrap long before the Hondurans started moving toward the United States. A normal president could have helped his party run on the economy this year. But if Donald Trump were a normal politician, he might not ever have been elected president.


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