Hillary Clinton sets immigration trap, Republicans don't fall for it (yet)

Setting political traps is a time-honored Washington tradition, and Hillary Clinton is trying to force Republican presidential candidates to take a hard-line position on immigration.

Mike Blake/Reuters
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (r.) takes part in a roundtable of young Nevadans discussing immigration as she campaigns for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination at Rancho High School in Las Vegas, Nev., last week.

“Setting a trap.” A common strategy in which a politician adopts a position intended to force rivals into taking the opposite and less defensible stance.

Star Wars fans will recognize Hillary Clinton’s latest tactics. Toward the end of “Return of the Jedi,” as the climatic space battle scene ramps up, Admiral Ackbar offers his famous warning about the Imperial defense around the dreaded Death Star. “It’s a trap!” bellows the Rebel Alliance commander – presciently, it turns out.

That’s what many are now saying about Mrs. Clinton’s recent move on immigration. In Nevada recently, she went further than President Obama in calling for a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants living in the country illegally. It was a not-very-transparent effort to goad her Republican rivals into espousing hard-line immigration policies that play well with their party’s conservative base, but are objectionable to the increasingly diverse electorate.

“There’s this theory that Hillary Clinton went to Nevada and set a trap for the Republicans,” NPR’s White House correspondent Tamara Keith said on CNN’s “New Day.” “She went to Nevada and talked about immigration, went to the left of President Obama and was essentially saying, ‘I dare you to say something that will make Latino voters not like you.’ ”

Steve McMahon, CEO and founding partner of the communications firm Purple Strategies, explained on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Clinton’s campaign is trying to get the GOP field to define itself as conservative so that the party’s eventual nominee has trouble later courting moderates. “The Clinton campaign is tactically very smart; they are setting a trap,” he said. “The Republicans will overreach because they always do and they'll define themselves with most voters in a way that is negative.”

But much of the Republican field is wise to Clinton. Leading candidates such as ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his one-time protégé, Sen. Marco Rubio, largely have avoided talking about her policy ideas. And the GOP candidates have been mindful of potential media-baited traps.

Supporters of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker spotted one earlier this year when he said in an interview that he did not know whether Mr. Obama is a Christian. A follow-up New Yorker article, unsubtly titled “The Dangerous Candidacy of Scott Walker,” drew conservative derision. The right-wing site Breitbart.com called the piece “a frustrated shriek through clenched teeth about how that wascally wabbit from Wisconsin slipped through the ‘gotcha’ trap.”

Obama himself has been accused of trap-setting – often as he has tried to make nice with opponents. And many Democrats viewed House Speaker John Boehner’s recent invitation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress in March, right before Mr. Netanyahu’s reelection, as a trap. They accused Mr. Boehner of wanting any Democrats who boycotted Netanyahu’s speech to be seen as insufficiently supportive of Israel.

“I know one thing about politics: When you know that your opponent is setting a trap, avoid the trap,” New York Democratic Rep. Steve Israel – whose name seemingly lends itself to a close association with the Middle East ally – told MSNBC. “I’m going to the speech. I have been to Israel more times than John Boehner has been to a golf course, and I will not allow him to define my relationship with Israel or the perception of my relationship with Israel.”

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