Thom Tillis the moderate? Be skeptical

Say hello to Thom Tillis, the centrist. Remember him? He was the candidate who ran for one of North Carolina’s U.S. Senate seats in 2014. He vowed then to be a moderate voice in polarized Washington. That sounded good to N.C. voters, who backed him over Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan.

That Tillis is back — at least in words. Hardly a week goes by now without the Tillis press shop announcing “bipartisan” bills the senator is sponsoring. He also is positioning himself at the center of significant issues, most notably this month with an op-ed in The Hill on immigration and the government shutdown. In it, Tillis called for a 21st century approach to border security that isn’t “a big, literal physical wall.” He called for a merit-based path to citizenship for the DACA population. He decried the “extreme elements on either side of the aisle.”

This editorial board agrees with much of that. We’ve long advocated for comprehensive immigration reform that includes security measures and a path to citizenship not only for immigrants in the DACA program, but at least some undocumented immigrants who’ve been a part of our communities. Most Americans agree.

But when faced with an opportunity to put action behind his words, Tillis is instead getting in line with Republican senators supporting Donald Trump’s “compromise” on immigration and the government shutdown. That compromise, which already has been rejected by Democrats, would only temporarily restore DACA protections the president took away in exchange for $5.7 billion in wall money. It’s an unproductive, political maneuver — just the kind Tillis seemed to lament in his Hill op-ed.

This is the problem with Tillis’s move to the center. He boasts of bipartisanship and files bills with Democrats on smaller-ticket issues, but when the big moments arrive, Tillis doesn’t. At least not as a centrist.

So it is with immigration this week. So it was with a bill last year on protecting Robert Mueller’s investigation — a measure that Tillis introduced but has declined to forcefully pursue. Tillis also has been anything but centrist on significant policies Americans support, such as basic gun control measures and protecting Obamacare. He voted against his party only 1.8 percent of the time last Congress, ranking him 95th among all senators, according to ProPublica.

Most importantly, when his country needed Republican senators to stand up to the president’s reckless statements and policies the past two years, Tillis has too often been quiet. In fact, he said this two weeks ago to the Huffington Post: “I’m going to defer to the president on the best strategy, and I would never vote to override a veto on something that the president didn’t think was the best approach.”

We understand the challenge Tillis faces. If he votes against the president on high-profile issues, he risks losing the support of N.C. voters who are passionately behind Trump no matter what. He has apparently chosen a different strategy: Keep those Trump backers happy, but talk a good centrist game in hopes of grabbing enough moderates to win. Will it work? Perhaps. But Tillis should own who he is, and North Carolinians should recognize what he isn’t.