Bud Kennedy

August 9, 2014

‘Secure the border’: From Tea Party shout to GOP marketing slogan

The party’s fractured voters are rallying around border hawks, partly over ‘amnesty’ but also as a market-tested campaign message.

Once, a president spoke from his heart about the illegal immigrants working and serving America.

“The vast majority of illegal immigrants are decent people who work hard, support their families, practice their faith and lead responsible lives,” he said, calling for peaceful illegal immigrants to stay legally as temporary workers.

Praising their children in the U.S. military, the president said America’s immigrants are “just what they have always been: people willing to risk everything for the dream of freedom.”

The president was George W. Bush.

He is a Republican.

Eight years later, his party seems further than ever from Bush’s practical, West Texas view of immigrants as fellow Christians sharing credit for the much-talked-about economic boom of Texas.

Instead, the party’s movement conservatives have turned Republicans toward a border-hawk mindset bent not only on tougher enforcement but on shooing immigrants away simply because they’re not as conservative.

What changed?

The president, the economy and the immigrants, according to Texas political science professors.

“Obama’s election and hard economic times led to the ascendancy of the Tea Party over the long-dominant business wing,” wrote Cal Jillson of Southern Methodist University by email.

Illegal immigrants became a “social threat,” Jillson wrote.

Or, as fellow SMU professor Matthew Wilson wrote, the Hispanic population grew so quickly that Anglos felt “genuinely imperiled … It’s easier to tolerate a relatively small minority than a rapidly growing population.”

Almost every professor mentioned a Republican turning point during the 2012 primary campaign — not Gov. Rick Perry’s “oops” moment, but the boos at a Tea Party debate in Florida when he said if you oppose public education for illegal immigrant children, “I don’t think you have a heart.”

Texas Christian University’s Adam Schiffer said his research into the polls and media coverage pinpointed that as Perry’s true 2012 downfall.

Republicans have become more hawkish, he wrote, but “being in Texas perhaps gives us a slightly exaggerated perception of it because our GOP had been more moderate.”

Bush, Perry and former House Speaker Tom Craddick, all born or reared in West Texas, took a rancher’s view of illegal immigrants as family-values voters and needed workers, particularly in Texas’ agricultural, construction and hospitality industries.

Bush’s speech calling for guest workers may have backfired, wrote 40-year professor Jerry Polinard of the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg.

“ ‘Amnesty’ appeared to galvanize the right wing,” Polinard wrote.

“They drew a line in the sand that a Republican candidate for any office now crosses at his or her peril.”

At UT Arlington, professor and former Republican staffer and consultant Victoria Farrar-Myers zeroed in on the newest political turning point.

Consultants have identified “Secure the Border” as the party’s best 2014 campaign mantra.

Farrar-Myers wrote that the party has so many factions now — I count at least five, from Chamber of Commerce business leaders and nation-building defense hawks to isolationist, business-bashing libertarians — “ ‘Secure the Border’ is at least a principle a majority of Republicans can sign onto.”

The popular choice as a campaign theme “makes this message appear louder and also sets a tone that the GOP has become more ‘hardline,’ ” she wrote.

Or, as Austin-based social-media strategist Vincent Harris wrote on Twitter July 12:

“Immigration is hottest issue online to generate a base & email list. People are FIRED up. #securetheborder.”

Yet the same party raises money nationally by selling mugs and T-shirts saying, “I Miss W” — George W. Bush.

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