Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

The 'Fear Caucus' Is Wrong

The headline over the Wall Street Journal editorial reads: "No-Growth Republicanism." The subhead explains: "The GOP's anti-immigration wing is anti-trade too."

The common mentality that animates both anti-trade and anti-immigration policies is "hostility to markets and globalization," writes the Journal. "This wing of the party opposes immigration and thus turns away thousands of the world's brains who want to be American. It opposes trade because it fears the U.S. can't compete."

The fascinating thing about the GOP's Fear Caucus is that they are the first ones to proclaim the glories of "American Exceptionalism" and denounce Democrats like President Obama for insufficient pride in their country's virtues. These scaredy-cats routinely brand liberals as part of a "Hate America First" crowd.

But as the Journal points out, the reverse is often true. It's the Fear Caucus that has lost confidence. They are the cowards who flinch from change and challenge; who see globalization as an enemy, not an opening; who worry that America cannot absorb foreign immigrants or compete in foreign markets.

To quote one of the president's favorite phrases, the Fear Caucus is "absolutely wrong" on both counts.

Of course, the politics of trade and immigration are very different, and in fairness, as the Journal points out, "the slow-growth Democratic left" shares the aversion of the Fear Caucus to expanded global commerce.

Those Democrats, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and her union allies, feel increasingly free to defy a lame-duck president, and it was Democratic senators who derailed -- at least temporarily -- Obama's push for expanded powers to negotiate trade deals.

But Obama feels liberated as well. With less than two years left in office, he does not need Warren and the labor bosses any more than they need him. That's why he has sharpened his criticism of the anti-trade faction in his own party. He has little left to lose.

In an interview with Matt Bai of Yahoo News, the president said Warren's arguments "don't stand the test of fact or scrutiny." And in a speech at Nike headquarters in Oregon, he derided anti-trade forces for wanting to "pull up the drawbridge and build a moat around ourselves."

Since there are moat builders in both parties, the politics of trade are muddled, and the implications for 2016 unclear. That's not true on immigration.

Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic candidate for president, strongly supports Obama's efforts to enhance the legal status of the country's 11 million undocumented residents. The Republican aspirants range from cautiously critical to adamantly hostile. So the partisan differences are huge, and the stakes high.

In 2012, Mitt Romney won only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote. Whit Ayres, a leading Republican pollster, told NPR that the GOP candidate needs 45 percent of that vote to win next year.

Immigration reform, Ayres said, "is a critically important issue for the future of the country as well as for political success."

That's why Clinton shrewdly decided to make immigration the first issue she's discussed in depth since officially becoming a candidate. Speaking at a high school in Nevada -- a swing state with a rising Latino population -- Clinton advanced two goals she would set as president. Long-term: Seek a "path to full and equal citizenship" for many illegals. Short-term: Expand the program advanced by Obama that would protect about 5 million of those undocumented immigrants from deportation while offering them greater access to work and education.

"Make no mistake," she said, laying down a clear political marker, "not a single Republican candidate, announced or potential, is clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship. Not one."

If anything, even the more progressive Republican candidates are backing down on immigration. Sen. Marco Rubio, who helped craft a bipartisan Senate bill providing a path to citizenship, now disowns his own legislation. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who also favored legalization, has changed his view and now stresses border security.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who once called immigration an "act of love" and is married to a Mexican woman, is less intimidated. But he still won't endorse the goal of full citizenship for the undocumented.

The politics of isolation and insularity can work for a while, but in the end, they always lose. Americans are a brave and resilient people. We don't build moats or pull up drawbridges.

If members of the Fear Caucus truly believed in American Exceptionalism, they would embrace the opportunities offered by expanded trade and immigration, not shrink from them.

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