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Right Opinion

Sound-Bite Politics

Bill Wagner · Nov. 28, 2018

Watching the current immigration follies play out, I was struck by how much our politics has devolved into sound bites. Here we have serious big-picture considerations involving an issue that is one of the few constitutionally mandated responsibilities of the federal government, worthy of a statesman-like approach, and yet all we get is dueling simplistic sound bites.

The recent elections had similar traits. Since there were around 450 individual races, I don’t know the extent to which the most obvious differentiating characteristic ruled, namely the quality of local candidates, but the national overlay was more sound-bite-oriented than a careful assessment of key issues. Sadly, gone are the days when candidates like Ronald Reagan spent a couple decades building a case for a political worldview.

A lot has been made of the gulf between Democrat and GOP vote tallies, but that was the result of Democrats running up the score in their urban strongholds. Although the media paints a different picture, the Democrats’ margins of victory in many toss-up suburban districts were surprisingly small. It appears that the deciding factor in many of these swing districts was sound-bite-oriented.

The higher-income, higher-educated white suburban women who provided the Democrat margin seem to have been swayed by uncontested misrepresentations of GOP positions on health care, specifically preexisting conditions. Why the GOP didn’t counter this remains a mystery. That provided cover for the demographic who did not approve of Trump personally yet loved his policies to pull the Democrat lever.

Trump relied primarily on border security and on painting Democrats as unhinged because of their behavior during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and their insistence on open borders in the face of the unruly caravan. He did not push his tax and economic policies nearly enough, perhaps taking that for granted. True, his main arguments played well with the GOP base, but Democrats didn’t fall for the caravan bait, and the Kavanaugh matters peaked too soon.

The numerous GOP retirements didn’t help either, as the GOP was not prepared to compete on a level playing field after having the incumbent advantage for so many years in so many districts. The good news is that the GOP losses are reversible in 2020 with a slightly modified platform and better PR.

Back to sound bites and immigration. Of course there are rather straightforward, commonsense compromises that could solve the immigration issue, but both parties have historically reverted to their politically motivated, base-oriented sound bites that perpetuated the flow of illegal aliens — the GOP driven by cheap labor, and Democrats by a new stream of voters.

Trump tried to change the conversation by stressing “The Wall,” and it worked with his base. But it didn’t form the basis for a compromise with Democrats. So back to the sound bites we went, this time revolving around exaggerated trivialities. For example:

  • “Who will get the blame if the government is shut down over wall funding?”

  • “Trump is a monster for tear-gassing children at the border.” (Just like Obama, it turns out.)

  • “The Ninth Circuit is out of control for blocking executive action on incomprehensible asylum law enforcement.”

Photos of mothers and barefoot children may tug at the heart strings, as set up by whomever is funding the caravan, but statements that the caravan is made up of drug dealers and gang members are equally polarizing and don’t address the core issues.

The truth is likely that the caravan, which is a mix of all the above, with 20- to 30-year-old men the dominant group, has been sold a bill of goods, and no one actually believed there really is a new sheriff in town who will simply not allow illegal entry or phony asylum claims to rule the day. So instead of solutions, pols on both sides focus on perceived short-term political gain, mostly by painting one side as racist and the other as open-border fanatics.

How about actually trying to govern on the issue? Try this on for size as a compromise that you can’t fit on a bumper sticker:

  • Secure the border.

  • Zero illegal immigration.

  • Full funding not just for a “wall” but for an integrated system of security methods.

  • Eliminate chain migration, the lottery system, and anchor babies.

  • Rigorously enforce international asylum protocols that require legitimate justification like religious or political persecution and genocide, not concern over local crime or seeking economic opportunity. Anyone entering the country illegally would not qualify.

  • Streamline the process and stop “catch and release.”

  • Inject common sense into the current incomprehensible legal immigration process, with targeted numbers for work permits and higher education visa extensions.

  • Fast-track DACA recipients to citizenship. (It’s not the kids’ fault.)

  • Provide a path to legal status for the 15 million or so people in the U.S. illegally. This would involve requirements to register and receive an “E-verify” card to allow them to work legally, assuming they pay taxes and stay out of trouble.

  • Give employers a grace period, after which knowingly hiring an illegal alien would bring about draconian penalties.

Sound bites tend to win elections, so don’t hold your breath that negotiations around the above would end sound-bite politics. But it would be a great start.

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