The ongoing crisis on the southern border is quickly shaping up to one of the first major issues of the early phase of 2016 U.S. presidential election, with potential candidates staking out positions within their party for upcoming primaries.
On the Republican side, Texas Gov. Rick Perry made the first big move with a demonstration that only a governor can muster, deploying 1,000 Texas National Guard troops to the border early this month. Standing at a podium with the uniformed commander of the Texas Guard, Perry struck his best presidential pose as he declared, "I will not stand idly by while our citizens are under assault.”
Soon, the governor departed for Iowa, where he was given a hero’s welcome, despite his stumbles in the state as a candidate in 2012. Perry’s earlier presidential ambitions were dashed after he accused his fellow Republicans of lacking a heart on immigration, but now, Mitt Romney’s chief strategist, Stuart Stevens, is telling The Washington Post that the governor is “greatly underestimated.” A Fox News poll showed Perry’s numbers rising amid the crisis.
In Washington, fellow-Texan Sen. Ted Cruz has championed his own hard line stance in the Senate, urging Republicans to vote against a border bill backed by House Republican leadership because it wasn’t tough enough on President Obama. Rolling back the administration’s deferred action policy on immigration is his “top priority,” a spokesperson told Politico.
House Speaker John Boehner pulled the border bill at the last minute Thursday, handing Cruz a victory and suggesting the conservative wing of the party is alive and well after last year’s wildly unpopular government shutdown, in which Cruz played a leadership role.
Others, like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush -- neither of whom has an interest in calling attention to their moderate immigration policies -- have stayed conspicuously quiet.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie hit a familiar chord of blaming Washington for the crisis, with the implicit corollary being that someone from outside the Beltway could better handle things. “We need to be straightforward and deal with it,” Christie said in his signature brusque tone at the National Governors Association meeting in Tennessee.
Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley was quick to stake out a position to the left of the Obama White House and the presumed 2016 frontrunner, Hillary Clinton.
While he’s had difficulty gaining traction in Clinton’s shadow, O’Malley got many liberals’ attention when he broke with the administration’s plan to speed up deportations. “We are not a country that should send children away and send them back to certain death,” he told reporters on the sidelines of the governors’ meeting.
The comments appeared to strike a nerve with the White House, which took the unusual step of leaking a private phone call with the governor and accusing him of hypocrisy for requesting that an immigrant shelter not be placed in western Maryland.
Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist who founded the firm Progressive Strategies, said the move was a “powerful moment” for O’Malley, who has been aggressively campaigning for fellow Democrats in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other states. “O’Malley is going to have to look for moments like that to get attention and to distinguish himself,” he said.
The governor’s border stance was a hit with the progressive attendees at this summer’s Netroots Nation conference in Detroit, Lux said, and the activists were upset with the way the White House treated him. “It really did create a stir,” he added.
Even Clinton, who has been extremely careful to present no daylight between herself and Obama during the tour promoting her new memoir, “Hard Choices,” staked out a position slightly to the left of the White House on the border.
While the administration has said it’s willing to change a 2008 law to speed up deportations, Clinton told Fusion’s Jorge Ramos Monday that the law should remain. “I’m advocating an appropriate procedure, well-funded by the Congress, which they are resisting doing, so that we can make individual decisions,” she said.
Previously, she told CNN that the children “should be sent back as soon as it can be determined who responsible adults in their families are.”
Even smaller players in swirl of 2016 speculation have used the border issue to position themselves. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, whom some activists are eyeing as a potential challenger Clinton, gave an impassioned speech with local faith leaders to announce that his state would take in migrants.
California Gov. Jerry Brown, another longshot candidate, took a swipe at Perry’s deployment of National Guard troops. And Texas Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro, who is considered a potential vice presidential pick, wrote a letter to Perry charging that the deployment“ appears to be rooted in politics more than sound public policy.”
While it’s unlikely this particular crisis will still be an issue once the election gets underway in earnest, immigration certainly will, and the potential candidates are eager to demonstrate early where the fault lines will appear.