This is a Test: A successful, crystallizing piece by Ramesh Ponnuru argues that a tough stand on controlling immigration is now a defining issue for conservatives (and, more significantly, maybe for Republicans generally). You used to be able to run for president as a GOP while pushing amnesty, just as you used to be able to run as a GOP while defending abortion (or as a Dem while opposing abortion). No longer. Run as an amnesty man now and you are Jeb Bush. (Even Marco Rubio, an actual member of the Amnesty Gang of 8, is trying desperately to make voters forget that.)
1) But I’m not sure immigration has become a defining issue for the reason Ponnuru gives — i.e. because it’s seen as a proxy for whether Candidate X is conservative on a range of other issues. Maybe it’s become a defining issue because (in itself) it’s an issue voters care about! Was there ever any passion for amnesty among the mass of conservative (or even Republican) voters? It was mostly a push by business elites, donors, strategists and think tankers–now unmasked as that.
2) If immigration only ranks as the third or fourth most important issue in polls — behind “the economy” and terrrorism — how could it be a “litmus test”? Maybe because the differences between the candidates on those other issues — the economy and terrorism — aren’t that great. On immigration they’re stark. Or maybe because voters have no easy way of assessing rival economic plans, but the can suss out an amnesty backer (e.g., if he or she uses the phrase “fix our broken immigration system” or “virtual fence”). Anyway, voters are allowed to have three or four litmus tests.
3) Here’s a big difference between the immigration litmus test and the abortion litmus test: When the line was drawn (in both parties) on abortion, the Dems wound up with a rough working majority on their side — something we were in the process of discovering in state legislatures when the Supreme Court short-circuited democracy in Roe. On immigration, if the line is drawn anywhere near where it now seems to be (e.g. no “amnesty first,” if at all, and no big increase in overall legal immigration levels) Republicans may find a majority on their side, while Dems wind up wishing they hadn’t made support for amnesty a litmus test for their candidates.
That is what we’re in the middle of finding out, anyway.