The controversy over Donald Trump’s racist, anti-immigrant comments has moved to center stage of the 2016 Republican presidential race. As the New York Times described today, “Republicans have struggled with the question of immigration overhaul for years, trying to balance a hard-line stance with the need to appeal to Hispanics. Now they have to say whether they agree with Mr. Trump’s views.”
While Jeb Bush finally disagreed with Trump’s comments over the past weekend and former New York Governor George Pataki strongly criticized Trump, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) actually defended Trump during an appearance on Fox News. Meanwhile, the rest of the 2016 GOP field has stayed silent (and in Senator Rand Paul’s (R-KY) case, refused to respond to Trump-related questions yesterday). At the same time, some of the usual suspects like bombastic Rep. Steve King (R-IA) are rushing to Trump’s defense.
It’s important to realize that Trump’s comments and their implications for the already-tarnished GOP brand image could have been easily avoided. If Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) and other Republican leaders had decided to stand up to the nativists in their midst and actually hold a vote on immigration reform last Congress, such a vote that would have passed the House with a majority of Democratic votes and a healthy complement of Republicans. If leadership had stepped up, the Republican Party would have a very different image on immigration and the contours of the 2016 race would be totally different.
The vacuum left by House Republican leadership was easily filled by the loud but not large nativist wing of the GOP. The House failed to allow votes on comprehensive immigration reform but has given nativist-in-chief Steve King multiple votes on denying relief and subjecting to deportation Dreamers and millions of immigrant families. Instead of standing up to Trump. the response to his racist remarks about Mexicans from leading contenders in the GOP primary has been late, tepid or, in Ted Cruz’s case, fawning.
According to Frank Sharry, “In 2013 the Senate passed a comprehensive bill on a bipartisan basis. But Speaker Boehner refused to allow the Senate bill or a House version of it to come up for a vote, despite the fact that a majority existed to approve it. As a result, the best chance in a generation to pass immigration reform was squandered and President Obama was compelled to step in and take executive action. The vacuum created by this lack of leadership has been filled by the likes of Steve King in the Congress and Donald Trump on the campaign trail. Trump is not some unwanted visitor that will be cauterized by a party committed to attracting Latino support, but a logical conclusion of gutless leaders refusing to stand up to nativist loud mouths. Unless and until the GOP acts to pass immigration reform and treat Latinos with respect, the anti-immigrant crazies will continue to define the party.”