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Thoughts on the Dowd memorandum

Matthew Dowd, a Republican strategist with an excellent track record, has produced a memorandum in which he argues, based on polling data, that Americans support a “comprehensive solution” to the problem of illegal immigration that includes reform on three fronts: strengthening enforcement at the border, creating a temporary worker program, and providing a way for illegals who are here now to obtain legal status. Dowd concludes that “Republican candidates succeed when they support taking [comprehensive] action on immigration.” He supports this conclusion by noting that, according to the poll, just 25 percent of voters are “more likely” to support a candidate who advocates only sealing the border, stopping illegal immigrants from entering, and imposing criminal penalties on immigrants. By contrast, 71 percent are “more likely” to support a candidte who wants to beef up border security, enforce laws against companies that hire illegals, and create a temporary worker program with safeguards against abuse.

Does this mean that conservatives should stop worrying and support the broad reform package proposed by the Senate and/or President Bush, and are doomed if they don’t? I don’t think so.

First, and obviously, one should not support a bad immigration reform plan regardless of its popularity. The poll results don’t speak to the merits of the Senate plan or the Bush plan.

Second, the poll results don’t persuade me that Republican candidates for Congress are doomeed unless they accede to the Senate’s plan or something similar. Candidates should easily be able to distinguish between the euphemistic “comprehensive reform” posited in the poll questions and the reality of the Senate’s Christmas tree bill. They should also be able to show the inadequacies of that bill’s enforcement provisions. Moreover, they need not embrace the punitive views expressed in the cartoonish alternative to Dowd’s favored position.

Third, the poll highlights why, even as a purely political matter, the administration’s position is so disappointing to conservatives. Look again at the postion that was found to be make 71 percent of voters more likely to support a candidate. It says nothing about a path to citizenship — rather it encompasses only enforcement and a restrictive temporary worker program. That is the perfect center-right position. But that’s not the president’s position. By adding a path to legalization, Bush has moved either to the dead center or (I would argue) to the center-left. And the poll does not purport to find that adding this element increases the percentage of voters who are more likely to support Dowd’s hypothetical candidate.

Given the dynamics of our politics, an administration can formulate popular positions either by staking out a position in the center-left or in the center-right. On this one, the administration chose the center-left. In doing so, it has made life difficult for conservative candidates. If the poll results are as unequivocal when it comes to this fall’s election as the administration hopes Republicans will believe them to be, many Republican House candidates likely will change course. As I said, though, the results don’t persuade me that candidates should or need to change course. Let’s see what House Republicans think.

JOHN adds: I doubt very much that the Republicans who actually have to face the voters in November are buying it. I think a typical response, as noted in this post, is: “They must not be polling anyone in [my] District.”

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