Over at National Review Online this morning, I ask how the Ronald Reagan of 1980 would have fared in today’s Iowa caucuses given his views on how to tackle illegal immigration (“GOP Candidates Betray the Spirit of Reagan on Immigration”). My conclusion, based on the current mood of many Republicans, is that Reagan would have been the target of a barrage of attack ads:
In April 1980, when Ronald Reagan was competing in the presidential primaries, he rejected the building of a wall between the United States and Mexico: “Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems? Make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit — and then while they’re working and earning here, they pay taxes here. And when they want to go back, they can go back. And open the border both ways by understanding their problems.”
If a Republican presidential candidate said such a thing today, he or she would suffer withering criticism for being soft on illegal immigration. Instead, we hear Reagan’s successors talk about implementing national ID cards, imposing intrusive regulations on the labor market, raiding farms, factories, and restaurants, and harassing small-business owners trying to survive in this tough economy, all in the name of chasing away hard-working immigrants.
The unhealthy competition among the current Republican candidates to sound tough on immigration also risks alienating millions of Hispanic voters who could otherwise be persuaded to support the party. If conservatives want to rediscover the more optimistic, inclusive, reform-minded spirit of Reagan, they should be talking about real immigration reform, not about spending more money and enacting more sweeping regulations to enforce a fundamentally flawed system.