Politico is reporting that Democratic operatives have crafted a new "get tough, no empathy" approach to discussing comprehensive immigration reform, sounding more like Republicans if they want to pass the reforms. The new approach is the result of extensive polling by Democratic firms according to Politico.
There is a kind of stupidity that is unique to pollsters. I recall the brief 2004 campaign of Gen. Wesley Clark. His pollster told the staff that Democratic primary voters did not respond well to the military, and were more concerned about health care and domestic issues. The staff was instructed to stop referring to Clark as "General Clark." He was henceforth, "Wes." The change was reflected in campaign literature. While leafleting in a neighborhood of mostly veterans in Muskogee, Oklahoma, the pamphlets left on door handles or mailed to Democratic voters failed to mention that Gen. Clark was a four-star general whose previous job had been Supreme Allied Commander at NATO. Mind you, the only rationale for Clark’s candidacy was that as a military man who had opposed the Iraq War as a strategic blunder, he could garner the anti-war vote without appearing weak on defense. No one looked at Clark as a viable candidate because he did his own taxes and, consequently, had special insights to the tax code. Campaigns do not just need pollsters, they need narratives, and when the pollster argues for a way of talking that does not fit into any conceivable narrative, find a new pollster.
So, why should Democrats avoid aping Republicans on immigration reform? First, if you get close to the fire, you are gonna get burned. Latino voters have learned to listen to the words and inflections of candidates. They know when they are being thrown under the bus. They know that someone who refers to "undocumented workers" is being more truthful to the circumstance of their situation than someone who uses the phrase "illegal aliens." Second, we are never going to out-tough the GOP on this issue. They own the "get tough" approach and the Democratic response should be to show how utterly ineffectual the get tough approach has been.
Most importantly, there is a better way to get immigration reform through the Congress and that is to focus, and continue to focus on the way current immigration law separates families and breaks apart communities. There are human stories about how current immigration laws destroy communities and families, the kind of stories that do not only make it on to the news but on to the soft news, those fuzzy 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. time slots that focus on human interest stories, time slots that aim at swing-voting, older women and stay-at-home Moms.
There is a religious aspect, and religious language, that further dramatizes an alternative approach: Just the other day a group of conservative evangelical pastors, including the president of the National Association of Evangelicals and a rep from the Southern Baptist Convention, came to Washington and held a conference call to discuss the need for comprehensive immigration reform. The effort was coordinated by the group Faith in Public Life which is increasingly making its presence felt in the power corridors of Wasington. One of the lessons you learn in Political Strategy 101 is that anytime an issue divides the other guy’s party, you seize it. Immigration reform splits both the evangelical Christian and the Chamber of Commerce wing of the GOP from the nativist Tom Tancredo wing. It does not so divide the Democrats: There are, at a maximum, maybe twenty-five House Democrats that might need to vote against the bill.
Finally, as I argued two weeks ago at NCR, the proper way to up the ante on immigration reform is not to start talking like Republicans but to send up to Capitol Hill the exact same proposal that President Bush sent up in 2006. Do not tweak the language or amend anything. Send the exact same proposal. Now, many Republicans didn’t like Bush’s proposal and they killed it, but some of them signed on and let them explain now why they would oppose it if they didn’t then?
Pollsters have way too much authority in contemporary political campaigns and it is stunning to me that candidates, that is the principals, continue to cede such authority to staff. Letting Mark Penn run the show surely did not do much for Hillary Clinton just as Gen., excuse me, Wes Clark’s pollster did not help him win the nomination in 2004. A good narrative will always trump anything you can get a focus group to tell you and, on immigration reform, the Democrats have a great narrative: It is the right thing to do. It is the American thing to do. It is the Christian thing to do.