The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 34

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 34

This week:

  • Trump’s huge immigration shift
  • He’s normalizing a more moderate position for his supporters
  • Clinton tries to hide from the press
Donald Trump’s candidacy launched with a focus on immigration, and with what seemed to be very clear ideas on it. Now seems to be looking to “soften” his position, as he puts it. Will this affect his campaign, and if it does, will it affect him for better or worse?
‘Fair and humane’: “No citizenship,” Donald Trump said to Sean Hannity, during last week’s town hall. “They’ll pay back-taxes, they have to pay taxes, there’s no amnesty, as such, there’s no amnesty. But we work with them…To take a person who’s been here for 15 or 20 years and throw them and their family out. … it’s a very, very hard thing.” He was discussing illegal immigrants in the United States. He no longer wants to send them home — instead, he wants to make a deal where they pay some kind of fine or tax, and are granted legal status so that their families are not broken up.

This was the beginning of something that surely no one expected a month ago — Donald Trump’s self-described “softening” on the issue of immigration. And frankly, it sounds an awful  lot like Jeb Bush before he dropped out of the presidential race. Mark Krikorian of the immigration-hawkish Center for Immigration studies reacted immediately with ridicule, calling Trump’s new plan the “Gang of Nine.”

Now, let’s not overreact right away. Trump’s new position is not exactly “soft,” at least from an objective point of view. He was sure to emphasize over the weekend an emphasis on deporting criminal immigrants “before the wall…before anything.”

But that doesn’t really separate him much from most establishment Republicans — Bush or Marco Rubio, for example. Nor, on the surface, does it even separate him much from Barack Obama, whose illegal executive action on immigration involved prioritization of deportations for immigrants who have been convicted of non-immigration-related crimes.

What Trump said — and what his campaign has confirmed since, that there are no mass deportations coming in a Trump administration — represents a broad political consensus on the immigration issue from Left to Right: Use immigration law to deal with serious troublemakers, and figure out a “fair and humane” (as Trump put it) way of dealing with the other 11-plus million illegal immigrants in the U.S. whose only offenses are immigration-related.

That position is not completely loosey-goosey. It opposes sanctuary cities (which the Obama administration has recently, belatedly cracked down on) but it doesn’t go anywhere near what Trump has been advocating. It represents an abandonment of the harder position from which Trump criticized other GOP candidates in the primaries as softies on the issue.

So the “softening is already quite a shift from the mass deportations that Trump has spoken of earlier, and from the sort of language he used in the June 2015 speech in which he announced his bid for the presidency: “The U.S., has become a dumping ground for everyone else’s problems….When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best….They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists….They’re sending us not the right people.”

That speech ruffled Republican establishment feathers. Today, though, Trump sounds a lot more like those he ruffled.

Can this kind of shift gain Trump voters who are more pro-immigration? Not if we’re talking about people for whom immigration is their main issue. But what  about the soft middle, for whom immigration is only a secondary or tertiary concern? It depends on whether they remain at all persuadable about the candidate himself, for reasons that go beyond immigration. One obstacle Trump faces in this election is that so many people have already made up their mind about him. This shift may not be enough to change the first impression in many cases, but it is possible that some voters will take this as a sign of maturation on the part of a first-time candidate.

Normalizing reform: But here’s another interesting question: If immigration doesn’t soften voters on Trump, can Trump soften voters on immigration? The answer here is less equivocal: Yes, it’s already happening.
Trump’s “softening” on immigration has probably cost him some voters. But for the most part his biggest fans seem to be hanging in there. That includes Ann Coulter, who argued in her new book that Trump can’t lose his supporters unless he goes soft on immigration. That loss of support hasn’t really occurred, judging by the reaction of many of his most prominent supporters.

Instead, his hard-core supporters have shifted to using the kind of language that establishment Republicans typically use in order to justify the shift.  For example, Mickey Kaus was seen on Twitter defending this “softening” by arguing that “ It’s not a ‘Gang of Eight’ bill if it’s enforcement-first.” Previously, most immigration reform skeptics argued that talk about “enforcement first” could not be trusted, that it was really just a way of pushing through amnesty provisions that would actually occur when the enforcement provisions did not.

What actually seems to be happening is that Trump is normalizing the idea of a softer immigration position for his base, which of all voters is likely the most opposed to it in principle.

If Trump wins the presidency, it is still too difficult, based on what he’s said so far, to determine exactly what he’d do on immigration. He seems to oppose mass deportations at this point, and seems warm to the idea of allowing long-term illegal immigrants to stay, but it remains unclear what the criteria would be for those seeking legal status.

But this could prove incredibly important if Trump loses the election and Republicans manage to keep control of the House. It is not too hard to imagine some Republican House members voting for an immigration bill, citing as they did so Trump’s support for certain measures pertaining to keeping families together or allowing illegal immigrants to obtain legal status provided they have been in the U.S. long enough.

Trump may therefore be paving the way for future legislation, irrespective of his own fate. That’s more than most presidential candidates can claim.
Clinton keeps dodging: Hillary Clinton spent last week focusing as much attention as possible on Trump rather than herself. Her new topic of conversation is the “alt-right,” the politically homeless nationalists whose numbers are a lot smaller than their online presence would suggest.

Clinton’s move here is wise in that it allows her to continue avoiding journalists’ questions. In fact, she awkwardly dodged reporters’ questions after her anti-Trump speech in Nevada by calling them “cooperative” and offering them chocolates.

There is something to the criticism that Clinton is avoiding the press, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t wise to continue doing so as long as she can. She is a seriously flawed candidate whom large majorities of the voters believe to be dishonest and untrustworthy. As long as she can allow Trump to bask in the limelight — this week that means in the light of his abrupt reversal on immigration — it is in her interest to do so.

Unfortunately, that means there has been less emphasis in coverage on her dishonest attempt to dump her email scandal on Colin Powell, on story that previously deleted Clinton emails will be released in the next month, and on the evident desire of her IT contractors to permanently delete records so that the FBI couldn’t look at them — so that “even God can’t read them,” as Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., put it.

Clinton’s strategy at this point is to hide, to shine the light on her opponent to whatever extent she can. Her great hope is that Trump’s foibles will distract everyone from her own problems, and to win the presidency by default.

So far, the polls suggest that she’s on to something. She leads, after all. But she has failed to open the wider national lead that one might expect at this point. Her advantage, depending on the poll, is in the high single digits (six points, on average) against Trump alone, and in the low single-digits (four points, on average) when Gary Johnson and Jill Stein are included as third-party choices. Some of the state polls are more encouraging for her, but others are not.

She continues to hover in the low 40s. The only thing saving her at this point is that  Trump continues to languish in the high 30s. The question now is whether she can win with 42 or 45 percent, just as her husband did in 1992.