March 2, 2008


The Border and the Ballot Box (DAVID LEONHARDT, 3/02/08, NY Times)

Immigration has a fantastically complicated political history in the United States. It has produced enough populist anger to elect Know Nothing mayors of Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington and San Francisco, all in the 1850s and, more recently, to help Lou Dobbs reinvent his television career and become a best-selling author. But when national politicians have tried to seize on such anger, they have usually failed — and failed quickly. “While immigration has always roiled large sections of the electorate,” said Eric Rauchway, a historian at the University of California, Davis, “it has never been the basis for a national election, one way or the other.”

That appears to be truer than ever in 2008. Mr. McCain will all but clinch the Republican nomination on Tuesday with victories in the Ohio and Texas primaries. In the Texas campaign, except for a couple of obligatory questions about a border fence during a Democratic debate, immigration has been the dog that didn’t bark. The candidates who would have made an issue of it exited the race long ago. [...]

ON a snowy December morning last year, Mr. Romney held a campaign event at a general store in Windham, N.H. Among the Republicans who had packed inside to hear him was a young mother, there with a child, and she asked Mr. Romney whether as president he would make sure that New Hampshire residents who worked in Massachusetts could qualify for in-state college tuition in Massachusetts.

There were any number of good-natured ways to deflect the issue (not one a president decides, of course). Mr. Romney chose none. “I can tell you this,” he replied. “If there is going to be an in-state tuition break, it’s going to be for citizens, not for illegals.” This was a swipe at Mike Huckabee, who had favored allowing illegal immigrants living in the state to pay the in-state tuition when he was governor of Arkansas.

In retrospect, those final weeks of 2007 — just before actual voting began — look like the recent high point for criticisms of illegal immigration. Consider that Mr. Huckabee was the one Republican candidate who seemed even friendlier to immigrants, including illegal ones, than Mr. McCain. In the November debate when other candidates tried to out-Tancredo each other, Mr. Huckabee instead upbraided Mr. Romney for his views on in-state tuition. “In all due respect, we’re a better country than to punish children for what their parents did,” Mr. Huckabee told him. “We’re a better country than that.”

In early January, he won the Iowa caucus in an upset of Mr. Romney. Shortly before the caucus, Mr. Tancredo became the first candidate to quit the campaign, evidently fearful that he would not even attract a respectable protest vote.

It’s hard, in fact, to see how a single 2008 Republican candidate benefited from anti-immigration rhetoric. All the while, Mr. McCain’s campaign bus was being followed around the early-voting states by a white van called the “Amnesty Truth Express.” Outside his Florida headquarters in West Palm Beach, a few days before he won the primary that established him as the clear front-runner, the van displayed a sign reading, “McCain Equals Amnesty.”

Hopefully, W will equal Amnesty first.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 2, 2008 8:27 AM
Comments for this post are closed.