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How Dean Could Win
by Scott McConnell, The American Conservative
5 August 2003Howard Dean

The Vermont governor would do well to make
immigration reform a Democratic issue.


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.

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 nervous.

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 again.

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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