The fourth GOP debate, hosted by FoxBusiness and the Wall Street Journal, enabled the candidates to define sharp differences with each other on several issues.
One of the clear distinctions was on the issue of illegal immigration, where businessman Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz argued for strict border controls while establishment-backed candidates Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich appealed to emotion and politics.
A shorter version: Donald Trump wants a wall and John Kasich wants a round of hugs.
The best feature of the FoxBusiness debate was that, with moderators removing themselves as debate participants, the candidates were able to articulate their own positions and draw clear distinctions with their rivals.
The first question on illegal immigration went to Trump, who has made the issue a cornerstone of his campaign. Reacting to a recent Federal Appeals Court decision striking down President Obama’s executive action on amnesty, Trump praised the decision and said:
I will tell you, we are a country of laws. We need borders. We will have a wall. The wall will be built. The wall will be successful. And if you think walls don’t work, all you have to do is ask Israel. The wall works, believe me. Properly done. Believe me.
Trump was pressed by moderator Maria Bartiromo on his support for deporting currently illegal immigrants. His answer raised the possibility that the illegal immigrants could ultimately reenter the U.S. through a legal process.
We either have a country or we don’t have a country. We are a country of laws. Going to have to go out and they will come back but they are going to have to go out and hopefully they get back.
But we have no choice if we’re going to run our country properly and if we’re going to be a country.
Trump’s answer drew an interruption from Ohio Gov. John Kasich. In what became a pattern for Kasich, he aggressively asked to comment on Trump’s statement.
[I]f people think that we are going to ship 11 million people who are law-abiding, who are in this country, and somehow pick them up at their house and ship them out of Mexico — to Mexico, think about the families. Think about the children.
Jeb Bush picked up on Kasich’s argument shortly after. Bush also made an emotional appeal:
Twelve million illegal immigrants, to send them back, 500,000 a month, is just not — not possible. And it’s not embracing American values. And it would tear communities apart.
Ted Cruz then addressed a question about entitlement reform and pivoted back to immigration. Cruz had several good moments during the debate, but his discussion of immigration earned strong applause from the audience.
I will say for those of us who believe people ‘ought to come to this country legally, and we should enforce the law, we’re tired of being told it’s anti-immigrant. It’s offensive.
I am the son of an immigrant who came legally from Cuba to seek the American dream. And, we can embrace legal immigration while believing in the rule of law — and I would note, try going illegally to another country.
Try going to China, or Japan. Try going to Mexico. See what they do. Every sovereign nation secures its borders, and it is not compassionate to say we’re not going to enforce the laws and we’re going to drive down the wages for millions of hardworking men and women.
Cruz stressed the economic impact of illegal immigration with a media-tinged quip:
I will say the politics of it will be very, very different if a bunch of lawyers or bankers were crossing the Rio Grande. Or if a bunch of people with journalism degrees were coming over and driving down the wages in the press.
Then, we would see stories about the economic calamity that is befalling our nation.
Perhaps the most interesting exchanges on illegal immigration were those that didn’t occur. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, whose Presidential campaign has been shadowed by his support of the Gang of Eight Senate amnesty bill, demurred from mentioning the issue.
Even when he was asked a question about the changing workforce and economic anxiety Rubio ignored the debate’s ongoing immigration discussion and stuck to his stump-speech on the importance of vocational training. Rubio’s point that we undervalue blue-collar jobs is certainly true, but it is certainly an interesting one to bring up during a discussion of illegal immigration.
In the end, only four of the candidates said anything substantive on the issue of illegal immigration, despite the fact that it is a top concern of Republican primary voters. Trump and Cruz laid out a pretty clear position; we have to secure the border and illegal immigration is against the law.
Bush and Kasich staked out an opposing, albeit more muddled view. They both gave nods to the importance of securing the border, but then each stressed the impact of apply existing laws to current illegal immigrants. Kasich said to “think of the children” while Bush worried that applying the law would “tear communities apart.”
The law is important, in other words, unless it conflicts with our emotions. Or, apparently, with our political calculations, as Bush argued.
[E]ven having this conversation [on illegal immigration] sends a powerful signal — they’re doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this. That’s the problem with this. We have to win the presidency.
Bush is right, in his own way. The problem with the Republican establishment’s consideration of illegal immigration is that it is overtly political. Republicans who take a moderate position on illegal immigration will invariably mention a political appeal to Hispanics as an overarching concern. This calculation was an enormous factor in Rubio’s aborted support of the Senate amnesty bill.
Cruz had the most prescient response to Bush’s point:
You know, what was said was right. The Democrats are laughing — because if Republicans join Democrats as the party of amnesty, we will lose.
If one is going to make the mistake of approaching the issue of illegal immigration from a purely political standpoint, the Republican establishment has it completely backwards. The Democrat party is on life-support in much of the country because it has alienated white, working class voters and is dependent on the votes of less-reliable voters like young people and minorities.
Ignoring the law to add millions more Democrat-leaning voters to the rolls and furthering the anxiety of working class voters is a recipe for political disaster for the Republicans.