Read: How immigration became so controversial
The insincerity was obvious, and it didn’t work. In many primaries and caucuses, according to data published by FiveThirtyEight, Trump won the lion’s share of voters who called immigration their top concern. During his presidency, Rubio and Cruz have largely supported his immigration agenda in the Senate. That’s unfortunate. Comprehensive research suggests that while immigration imposes some fiscal costs, and disadvantages some Americans, it benefits the American economy as a whole. But these Gen X Republicans who once promoted that view have mostly gone silent.
Gen X Democrats have suffered a similar crisis of confidence. Consider Beto O’Rourke’s and Julián Castro’s shifting stances on trade. By the time each ran for city council in their Texas hometowns of El Paso and San Antonio in the 2000s, they had witnessed the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Clinton had signed into law in 1993. Initially, El Paso saw low-wage manufacturing jobs go south of the border, but over time, as Texas and Mexico grew more economically intertwined, fortunes rebounded. A 2016 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas found that since NAFTA had gone into effect, average income levels in El Paso and other Texas border cities had come closer to those in the nation as a whole. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in San Antonio, which averaged more than 6 percent in the three years prior to NAFTA taking effect (the Bureau’s data starts in 1990), has averaged about 5 percent in the 25 years since.
Given the data, it’s not surprising that both O’Rourke and Castro hailed free trade before running for president. “Since the signing of NAFTA,” Castro declared in 2012, “San Antonio has blossomed into a major center of trade.” O’Rourke in 2015 voted to give Obama the authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which, he said, offered the “chance for El Paso to capitalize on its growing status as a leading trade community.”
But as the Democratic Party has moved left, O’Rourke’s and Castro’s support for free trade has left them ideologically marooned. Castro now calls for renegotiating NAFTA, and has said he sympathizes with people who feel that many trade deals were “entered into with the concern of the big corporations first instead of the American worker.” O’Rourke wants to renegotiate it too, though not markedly, despite most studies showing that NAFTA has had a modestly positive overall impact on the American economy.
Read: Trump’s exaggeration of NAFTA’s lousiness
Kamala Harris’s retreat has been on truancy. In 2006, as San Francisco’s district attorney, she launched an initiative to reduce the number of students who chronically missed school without a valid excuse, a problem that, in the words of one 2005 study, had “reached epidemic proportions in urban academic settings.” The initiative was classically Clintonian, an effort to pair the two principles in which he grounded many of his policies: opportunity and responsibility. To help parents keep their kids in school, Harris created a hotline through which they could get referrals to services. Her office advertised the hotline on city buses that passed through neighborhoods where truancy rates were high. But she also sent a letter to parents warning them that truancy was against the law. Before prosecution, parents of truant children went through a lengthy, noncriminal process with school officials. But when that didn’t work, Harris’s office could bring them to court.