Remember Tom Tancredo’s presidential campaign? If you don’t, you’re not exactly alone. He dropped out of the 2008 GOP contest in late 2007, and hasn’t won elected office since. Like Jay Inslee, he was a single issue candidate.
Tancredo was all about immigration and the border. He’d announced in early 2005 that he would become a candidate if other candidates didn’t adequately address illegals (I don’t believe the term “undocumented” ever passed his lips.)
His candidacy went nowhere, and he endorsed Mitt Romney for 2008 as he left the building. You may recall Romney was far to the right of opponents like John McCain on immigration. Same in 2012 compared to Rick Perry or Newt Gingrich.
As a Massachusetts governor who had once run for senator to the left of Ted Kennedy on gay rights, this was an opportunity for Romney to show his conservative bona fides. After Obamacare, which was similar to Romneycare in Massachusetts, passed, taking a hard line on immigration became even more important.
It made a legit difference. Romney got endorsements from conservatives like Ann Coulter. This sort of backing was a big part of his 2012 nomination. But in the general election, it was the worst of both worlds. His plan to have people self-deport was mocked.
Voters who cared about border control didn’t turn out. Latinx voters opted for Obama by a 3 to 1 margin. This helped create the opening and logic for Donald Trump.
While Reince Priebus and the RNC were building their post-election autopsy, arguing Republicans would need to reach out more aggressively to voters of color in 2016, Trump was planning his escalator ride. Tancredo’s credo in a media savvy celebrity, combined with another decade of seeming inaction, created a nominee, a president, and a change in the axis of the Republican Party.
George W. Bush, John McCain, Paul Ryan, and Marco Rubio are just four examples of prominent pro-immigration, pro-Latinx Republicans. The party was officially split on the issue until Trump. Not only was Trump able to get disaffected, anti-illegal white voters to turn out, but his capture of the party obliterated the other approach.
With a floor on how many Latinx voters would abandon the GOP, Trump actually scored about the same as Romney did. A combination of socially conservative voters staying away from Democrats, younger voters not bothering to show up for Hillary Clinton, and a concentration in states that weren’t competitive, meant this demographic wasn’t going to control the results.
Even while Democrats were picking up tons of House seats in 2018, Republicans gained Senate seats in North Dakota and Missouri, in part by running on Tancredoism. Trump talking about caravans might not have helped in suburban swing districts, but it got rid of Claire McCaskill in Missouri.
As Inslee retreats back to Washington to run for a third term as governor, you’ll hear his failure proves Democratic voters don’t care about climate change above all else.
The same could have been (and likely was) said about Tancredo twelve years ago. A backbench congressman wasn’t going to get attention then. Not with Romney, McCain, Rudy Giuliani, et al as options. Generic middle aged white guy in a suit wasn’t going to register this time. Inslee was the wrong vessel.
It’s timing too. In 2008, many Republican voters believed in a multi-issue candidate who wanted to control immigration, but wasn’t speaking in apocalyptic terms (Romney). They nominated a guy who wanted a bipartisan solution (McCain.)
This is the year of AOC and the Green New Deal. While Nancy Pelosi remains openly disdainful, and pays for it daily, many 2020 candidates have endorsed it. Candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders seem like they would attack climate change.
A Democratic voter has every reason to believe almost anyone they would nominate will take this issue seriously. Let’s gaze a bit into the future though.
Trump could win in 2020. If he does, there won’t be any major legislation passed on climate change that can sustain an inevitable presidential veto.
He could lose. He could lose to Warren or Sanders, someone who would likely go further than Joe Biden. But there’s still the matter of the Senate. Currently in, and likely to stay for the next few years in Republican hands. There are just more red states than blue.
Right now, Democratic voters don’t think it’s necessary to nominate an Inslee to get movement on an issue many do care a great deal about. Not necessarily in a way they can define in terms of policy, but very much in terms of knowing their leaders care about what they do.
Much as there was a split among Republicans on controlling the border, deporting illegals, and altering legal immigration quotas, there’s a big divide among elected Democrats on how far to move on climate change and government control of the economy to get desired results.
Another presidential term or two of limited action and legislation will change the center of gravity. Whether it’s AOC herself, or just someone who sounds a bit like her, we will see a Democratic nominee who makes climate change and the lack of response by her own party a cultural weapon to win with.
Inslee is gone, but the issue is not.