Scott Walker Is 2016's Mitt Romney

04/25/2015 04:06 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2015

That didn't take long. Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) is now the first 2016 GOP presidential potential walking the anti-immigration plank, hoping -- against history -- that this time it will lead to the White House and not just to a watery political death.

Since Republican nominee Mitt Romney crashed in 2012 on the shoals of his "self-deportation" strategy of harassing immigrants until they left the country, many Republican leaders and operatives have concluded that Romney's immigration policies were sure losers in a national election.

How else to explain Romney's showing among American Latino voters -- the worst since President Ford? In fact, it does help explain the loss of key swing states, by having repulsed Latino voters en masse.

So now comes the 2016 GOP frontrunner, Walker, walking down the same road. In a revealing interview with Glenn Beck, Walker came out not only against immigration reform with a path toward earned citizenship; he also staked a position against legal immigration.

For some time, the Republican talking point was "we're not against immigrants, only illegal immigrants." Of course, that line in itself was not going to win Hispanic voters for whom immigration policy is a proxy for respect. But at least it had some connection to reality -- immigration is one of the most effective mechanisms for the American economy to diversify its workforce, create job specialization, and increase economic growth and wages.

Undoubtedly, Walker's own immigrant ancestors were part of this machinery, which has made the American economy the most powerful and vibrant in the world.

I remember my third-grade teacher in Connecticut teaching us about the melting pot. "And that's how we all become Americans," Mr. Richter told us. It was one of those powerful conversations that allows you to connect the dots -- and for me, to understand that my feeling of being an alien in a new world would eventually dissipate. It was both factual and comforting.

But we're in a different epoch in America. Walker is playing to that section of the American electorate that is anxious and angry. The multi-decade process of globalization has created many challenges for American workers -- we no longer just compete with our neighbors for jobs; we now compete with workers across the world.

Moreover, technology has immeasurably improved our lives, but has also exposed us to the increasing robotization of formerly middle-class jobs that are disappearing like that of the trolley driver. It is to this sector of the electorate that Walker is pointing his anti-immigrant remarks.

Recent demographic studies of the Republican base show a population of economically anxious people with relatively low levels of education, older than the general population and predominantly living in Republican-governed states where education has not been prioritized, and where the social net, which serves both psychological and substantive comfort for a displaced worker, is tattered and ineffective.

Enter Walker's politics of fear. For the party that rhetorically champions self-reliance, the emphasis on creating fear and despair in the electorate is ironic, but effective. Why blame yourself for economic insecurity when you can blame a faceless immigrant plotting to take away your job?

Walker and his 2016 fellow GOP contenders have now discovered that the middle class is under pressure. But instead of proposing transformative policies -- like greater access to education, including adult education, cheap loans for small business start-ups and a fair tax code that rewards work at least as much as it applauds passive investments -- GOP candidates have vilified immigrants.

American history is replete with examples of immigrant attacks in the name of economic issues, racial purity and general "otherness."

As some Republican strategists have suggested, the GOP's best hope in 2016 is to hyper-stimulate the non-Hispanic white vote. This strategy is problematic on several fronts. To start, it means trying to get a bigger percentage of a population that will be a smaller share of the electorate in 2016 than it was in 2012.

Moreover, it shows a damning pessimism on the part of Republicans, a surrender of the idea that the Republican platform could actually attract new voters from what Ronald Brownstein has called the new ascendant segments of the American electorate: young people, college-educated folks, Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Latino-Americans and especially women.

This strategy is more a Republican Party epitaph than an exhortation to victory.

The day after Romney's defeat, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said that immigration reform would be at the top of the Republican agenda. Four years and one bipartisan Senate bill carefully calibrating a comprehensive bill to reform our outdated and failed immigration system later, Republicans are back to vilifying immigrants.

Walker's alliance with his party's anti-immigrant champions may be sound primary politics. The Tea Party movement has now transformed itself into a force against immigration, and you can expect it to be a fervent participant in the nominating process.

But what is Walker (or Sens. Ted Cruz [R-Texas], Marco Rubio [R-Fla.] et al.) going to do in the general election if he wins the nomination? Faced with a primary process during which Republicans will try to outdo each other in their anti-immigration rhetoric (self-deportation with leeches?), whoever emerges the winner will face repudiation not just from Latino- and Asian-Americans, as Romney did in 2012, but from Americans of all walks of life who remember that this country is a nation of immigrants, made up of people who value fairness and reject prejudice.

An electoral strategy of division and fear, like the one now adopted by Scott Walker, cuts both ways. As Mitt Romney proved, anti-immigrant zealotry is a great get-out-the-vote strategy -- for Democrats.