Howard Dean’s remarkable
fund-raising surge, his unusual ability simultaneously to galvanize liberals,
intrigue non-liberals, and say “no” to core Democratic constituencies without
alienating them renders him the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination.
The Democratic Party’s Washington establishment is already uncomfortable
with him, leaking anonymous quotes about an Election-Day debacle that would
cost the party its foothold in Congress. But these folks (or their political
forebears) opposed George McGovern and Jimmy Carter as well. They don’t have
a strong candidate to put up against Dean: even back when the formidable
Hubert Humphrey or Scoop Jackson would rush into the breach to ward off an
outsider or antiwar insurgent, it didn’t do the trick.
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But if it is now more than plausible that Dean will emerge from the bottom
half of the draw, is there any reason to think that the former Vermont governor
won’t be ground to bits by George W. Bush in the final? McGovern won only
his native South Dakota and the District of Columbia against Nixon; Mondale
fared no better against Reagan. Michael Dukakis never figured out what hit
him when the first George Bush began to paint him as an effete liberal New
Englander, and George W. Bush has bonded with Middle America far more than
his dad ever did. You can understand why the Democratic establishment is
It is unlikely that being right from the start about Bush’s invasion of Iraq
will carry any Democrat to the White House. Support for the war has dropped
from 80 percent to 56 percent in the three months since the famous victory,
but it may not drop farther. Much of the American electorate will always
support the president when there are troops in the field and not welcome
questions about how they got there. A candidate like Dean will have the antiwar
vote, the traditional Democratic constituencies of blacks, most Hispanics,
and labor. He will do well with gays (like Jews, a fund-raising constituency
more than a decisive voting bloc) and with well-educated wine-and-cheese
liberals, and he has done an extraordinary job of mobilizing young people
getting involved in politics for the first time. But this may not be enough
to beat a sitting president unless the economy is thoroughly in the tank.
Dean’s weakness is the weakness of every Democrat in the last 30 years—a
tepid appeal to working- and middle-class white voters, especially males,
especially in the South and border-states. The Vermonter has acknowledged
the need to “get white males to vote Democratic again,” but federal health
insurance and balanced budgets, which he brings up when the question is raised,
won’t do it. What could?
The obvious choice is immigration. As the issue first began to simmer in the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the LA riots, LA Times editorial writer Jack Miles wrote a seminal piece in the Atlantic Monthly
suggesting that while the immigration issue had begun to percolate on the
Right—as an issue of cultural cohesion—it would eventually be seized upon
by the Left, as a labor and fairness issue.
Miles’s prediction proved half right. He was correct in pointing out that
immigration transcended standard Left-Right categories. He noted that much
of the “free market” business community more or less favored open borders—the
Wall Street Journal editorial page being the most important
public example. And it’s not as if high immigration rates are without negative
consequences for Democratic constituencies. As George Borjas and other immigration
economists have argued, while some immigrants do benefit the overall economy,
a large coterie of low-skilled workers has costs, and those costs are borne
disproportionately by less-skilled and lower-paid American workers. If you
are the sort of person who wishes to hire someone cheap to clean your pool,
you are probably someone who benefits from a large reserve army of poor and
eager workers. If you are struggling to support a family with the skills
of a high-school graduate, you will benefit from a tighter labor market and
higher wages that would stem from a lower rate of immigration.
Miles maintained that the first winners from immigration reform would be
the black workers—a group that has lost many niches in the American economy
during the past generation to new immigrants. But white workers are getting
hurt as well. In a phenomenon noted by Brookings Institution demographer
William Frey, the white working class has been steadily fleeing high-immigration
states during the last 15 years—from California to Nevada and Colorado, from
New York to the Southeast. But the immigration surge has kept pursuing them,
five or ten years behind, and is now beginning to have a notable impact on
labor markets in the interior of the country. In a bellwether case, Tyson
Foods, the meat- and poultry-processing giant, recently was charged in a
federal indictment with conspiracy to transport illegal aliens from Mexico
to Tennessee in order to lower its wages. The company defended itself by
arguing that executives “acting on their own” were responsible for importing
an illegal work force. But the fact is that a pool of illegals kept wages
at essentially sub-American rates throughout the 1990s.
Any Democrat interested in raising the immigration issue has a good precedent
and ready-made vocabulary. In 1995, the bipartisan federal advisory Commission
on Immigration Reform headed by Barbara Jordan, the first black member of
Congress elected in Texas, recommended cutting the legal immigration rate
by about one-third and sharply stepping up enforcement against illegal aliens.
President Clinton initially endorsed her proposals, but legislation based
on her commission’s recommendations was defeated in the House after a massive
Left-Right lobbying campaign by open-borders business interests and ethnic
lobbies. The economy was booming then, however, and hardly anyone was out
of work. The vote would probably be different today. Why couldn’t a Democrat
like Dean seize the “vital center” of the immigration debate, embrace the
Jordan proposals, and outflank Bush as a protector of American culture, prepared
to enforce American laws and preserve the rights and living standards of
working-class Americans? Answer: he could.
The immigration issue is the weak link in George Bush’s hold over his bedrock
white-male constituency. The president has refused to join the battle against
affirmative action—a policy that discriminates against white men and their
children. While there may be a moral and practical case for some form of
affirmative action for the descendants of blacks brought here in slavery,
the Supreme Court “diversity” decision has probably ensured that preferences
will flow to a variety of other groups, including recent immigrants, long
into the future. The case for a reduced immigration flow and strict enforcement
of America’s laws is explicitly a case for making sure America’s labor markets
do not soon resemble those of Mexico and Brazil. But it is implicitly a case
against the United States becoming a nation riven by divisive arguments over
affirmative action and ethnic quotas, as the groups with a stake in such
programs expand inexorably. America is a diverse nation already and will
always remain so: it hardly needs an infinitely growing pool of impoverished
workers to prove the point.
How might this play out in electoral practice? Addressing immigration would
certainly help any Democrat in New Mexico and Arizona, whose primaries follow
right upon New Hampshire’s, and in Tennessee, a border-state with a growing
illegal-alien problem. Would it alienate left-wing supporters? Perhaps some—especially
that segment of the radical Left that sees immigration as a tool to eradicate
“white hegemony” or whatever their term of art for traditional America is.
Dean doesn’t need their support.
But Dean’s problem isn’t with Democratic primary voters. It’s with white
males, especially those who objectively might back him for economic reasons.
Embracing immigration as an issue will give him a ready answer when the latter-day
Lee Atwaters get to work “defining” him. How much will George W. Bush want
to talk about the amnesty plan he was hatching with Vicente Fox—shelved for
the moment after 9/11—but still part of the Bush agenda? How much will Bush
want to talk about the weak border enforcement prior to 9/11?
Embracing immigration reform would make good practical politics. But would
Howard Dean be willing to consider such arguments, or is he too reflexively
liberal? The record is unclear. Dean has made many standard PC statements
about immigration helping the economy (partially true, partially false) and
the wonders of diversity. Modern-day progressives aren’t supposed to care
about the nation’s borders.
But it’s not clear what Dean’s actual political coloring is. The left-wing
press finds his record in Vermont dismayingly moderate. A not uncommon assessment
is that he’s basically a Rockefeller Republican. He seems clearly descended
from a New England progressive WASP tradition, prudently internationalist
in foreign affairs, a vigorous supporter of equal rights for blacks, a strong
environmentalist—part of the political culture that has spread from New England
across to Wisconsin and Minnesota and the Pacific Northwest—a good-government
kind of progressivism. This is a political heritage that has embraced—even
led—immigration reform movements before in American history. It could well
Scott McConnell is the Executive Editor of the American Conservative. First published in the July 28th issue of the American Conservative. Reprinted with permission.
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