Yesterday afternoon, President Trump took to champion the latest White House immigration plan, prepared and announced by Jared Kushner last week. The plan has been poorly received and poorly reviewed. No surprise.
I had been asked a couple of months back by different groups if I wanted to contribute analysis to the Kushner plan. I demurred, because there are only two reasons to propose legislation:
Because it will pass
Because it helps your electoral prospects
The Kushner plan wasn’t going to do either.
It wasn’t going to pass
Any proposal which cuts green cards for family reunification while providing no relief to Democrats on DACA was going to be a non-starter. Here’s Chuck Schumer:
“Exclusion of DACA?” Mr. Schumer said. The idea that for every immigrant they help, they “hurt one, all of that is no good.” NYT
On the other hand, trading a reallocation of green cards for DACA amnesty at this point in the political cycle would be suicidal for the president and the Republican members of Congress. So that deal wasn’t going to happen, either.
Even leaving the DACA issue aside, the proposal failed to gain traction in key Republican circles:
On Wednesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced legislation that would, in part, change the asylum process, saying that "the White House's plan is not designed to become law."
"The White House plan is trying to unite the Republican Party around border security and merit-based immigration. I am trying to get some relief to our Border Patrol agents," the South Carolina Republican told reporters. "I'm trying to put a dent in the smuggling business and keep kids from going on a journey that's got to be hell." CNN
It was clear well in advance that the Kushner plan risked being viewed as irrelevant by key Republicans — another reason why I felt the initiative was headed in the wrong direction.
The key issues on the table are the asylum surge and illegal immigration more broadly. By failing to address those, the Kushner plan made itself moot.
It hurts the President’s electoral prospects
Had the proposal come from, say, a President Jeb Bush, it might have received a better reception. It is primarily a technical initiative reallocating visas in ways that fail to move most conservatives. There is not going to be any “Fight for 33” — 33% being the the proposed share of green cards intended for family reunification, versus 66% currently. Just to visualize: Imagine two Texas oil roughnecks, and one says, “Yeah, that Trump didn’t reduce immigration a bit, but boy, that green card allocation just makes my day. 33%! Can you believe it!”
No, they’re not going to say that.
But it’s worse than that. It’s a swamp proposal. Republican voters elected Trump to “burn the house down.” This Kushner plan is almost the diametric opposite. It’s a green eye shades proposal that only an accountant could love. The proposal is not bad per se, but it is largely what you might expect from the inside-the-beltway crowd. That this is the best the White House could conger so late in the game is devastating to the president’s image. If the pinnacle of the administration’s imagination is a Jeb-worthy proposal, conservatives would have done better with Jeb, who would have carried so much less baggage.
And finally, the very worst part of the proposal is its timing. It represents absolutely terrible clock management. Trump has about seven months left in the legislative cycle. That’s it. Meanwhile, the first five months of the year will have been consumed with exhaustive preparations for a predictable non-starter. Reloading becomes increasingly difficult, particularly if the Kushner plan remains in play until, say, Labor Day.
If that happens, is this the immigration initiative the president intends to take into next year’s election? A poorly conceived proposal from the swamp that had no hope of passing? One that makes the White House look bereft of fresh ideas, ready to capitulate to Washington insiders? The plan is not going to rally the troops, and it has already flopped with the left. This was a bad play for the president, and time is running very short.
And that’s what I told people three months ago.
Dump the right
So why was the plan proposed at all?
I have heard now in several circles an intent to move the president to the center and jettison his more rabid supporters. To be clear, this is not coming from the president, to the best of my knowledge, but from members of the Washington crowd. They hope that by dumping his far right supporters, Trump can broaden his appeal.
And there’s more to it.
The Washington crowd has a deeper antipathy towards the gun-totin’, Bible-thumping rural conservatives who comprise Trump’s base. The beltway insiders — both Democrat and Republican — don’t want to make peace with these conservatives, they want to make them go away, to marginalize them completely. And that’s the plan for Trump: dump the rural conservatives and make-up with suburban used-to-be Republicans and independents.
As I argued months ago, this is a terrible idea. The numbers tell us why. The graphs below show the president’s net approval ratings versus his six predecessors. Now, Trump’s net approval ratings are below all of the others, and no president has ever been re-elected with Trump’s ratings. That explains the strategy to move to the center or even center-left.
But the numbers tell us even more. Trump’s net approval ratings have held remarkably steady. Take any other president, and his popularity rating has moved up and down. But not Trump. Trump’s approval and disapproval ratings have remained rock solid within a narrow range, with neither victories nor defeats much changing public sentiment.
For Trump’s supporters, he is a cult figure. He is their guy, and objective reality does not matter as much as team loyalty. But the flip side is also true. Most of those who hate Trump, really hate him. And therefore even positive achievements — arguably the tax cut, the First Step Act, and certainly the economy — go unrecognized. Trump’s not like George Bush Sr. Bush’s enemies did not hate him so much, nor his friends have such rabid loyalty. He was a bit like oatmeal, generally tolerable but unlikely to generate either enthusiasm or antipathy. For that very reason, though, he could see his approval numbers move up and down. Events could influence the electorate’s views of Bush.
For Trump, it is primarily personal and less about policy. Were Trump to dump his devoted followers, he would very likely find himself on an island with narrowed support, not moving up into a widening band of acceptability. There is no moderate electorate waiting with open arms to embrace the president.
Therefore, for Trump to reject his devoted support is electoral suicide. He must hold them or lose.
At the same time, if that’s all he holds, he will lose. The numbers make that plain.
Therefore, any policy initiative must not only enhance Trump’s appeal with lapsed Republicans and independents, it has to appeal to his conservative base. Trump has to expand his church, not move to the next county. And that was never going to happen with the Kushner plan.
If Trump is to be re-elected, he has to be something more than conservative, and certainly not swampy. He needs an idea that’s big, bold and beautiful—one that appeals to conservatives and draws raves from the main stream media. There are actually any number of initiatives that come to mind, market-based visas among them. If Trump is to survive, though, he needs to be more than just conservative or moderate. He has to be Trumpian.