Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The wedge worked, it tears Republicans to pieces.

In the wake of last weeks defeat, the feeding frenzy of Republicans eating their own has reached a feverous level. From the fiscal conservatives come calls that only a return to some sort of mythical economic orthodoxy can save the party. The religious right blames the party's defeat on their failure to enact enough restrictive social legislation. The xenophobe wing complains that Bush and his big business buddies sold them out on border security and the now disgraced neo-cons blame the failure of their vision for transforming the world on the administrations ineptitude in following their plan. But the neo-cons excuses have for the most part fallen on deaf ears. Iraq played a central role in the Republican defeat, and no matter how much spin they put on it, the fact remains that they led the nation into an unnecessary and unwinnable war that cost their party dearly.

Now the neo-cans have fired back and the Weekly Standard has taken the offensive. According to an article by Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, the blame for the Republican defeat is squarely placed on the shoulders of those who forced immigration as a wedge issue.

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The fact that those who brought us the nightmare in Iraq would be looking to shift blame comes as no surprise. But the bluntness and honesty with which they skewer the xenophobe wing of the party is still a vindication for those of us on the other side of the aisle who have long been saying that the immigration issue was no more than a carefully crafted "crisis" that had far more to do with political expediency than principle and was doomed to failure.

Jacoby's article, "A Wedge Too Far: The immigration issue didn't work.", not only goes into detail about how the issue was fabricated and fostered for more than a year in anticipation of the election, she lays out a convincing case for why the plan backfired and ended up tearing the Republican Party apart.

As the Democrats take control of Congress the story Jacoby lays out should be a lesson on how not to deal with this issue.

Immigration was the dog that didn't bark. It did not prove an effective wedge issue. And as far as could be determined, it decided few if any contests. No congressional or gubernatorial candidate otherwise poised to win was defeated primarily because of his or her views on immigration. No more than one or two, if that many, struggling to catch up managed to ride it to victory. And the most stridently restrictionist candidate in the country, Arizona congressional hopeful Randy Graf, who ran a campaign based almost entirely on immigrant-bashing, went down in flaming defeat.

This wasn't for lack of trying by immigration naysayers--activists, candidates, or the Republican party establishment. The GOP leadership, particularly in the House, started planning their wedge campaign over a year ago…

…Struggling candidates and activist PACs were only too happy to play into this scenario, generating some of the nastiest ads in recent campaign memory. The 600-plus page Senate bill was reduced to a single sound bite: More than two dozen spots misleadingly claimed that it would pay Social Security benefits to illegal aliens. Democratic candidates who had not been anywhere near the Senate vote or even endorsed the bill were pilloried for its contents. On one particularly unsavory website, Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow was pictured in a sombrero, bobbing back and forth to Mexican music, over a text that thanked her in Spanish for what it implied was an un-American vote for the package.

Still other ads aimed directly at immigrants, calling them, among other things, "sneaky" intruders, "stealing" American jobs and taxpayer dollars. More than one Republican flyer mixed photos of Latino workers and Middle Eastern terrorists; several spots dwelt ominously on mug shots of convicted felons. Perhaps the ugliest commercial, out of North Carolina, showed a Latino man clutching his crotch, followed by an image of the American flag in flames: "They take our jobs and our government handouts," the voice-over ran, "then spit in our face and burn our flag." Far-right restrictionist groups--the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the Minuteman PAC, Bay Buchanan's Team America PAC--were responsible for some of this demagoguery. But the national Republican Senatorial and Congressional committees were not ashamed to put their names on far too much of it.

Jacoby then goes on to dissect the extent of the issues failure.

Meanwhile, even as Republicans painted themselves into a xenophobic corner, they inadvertently cast the Democrats as the party of pragmatism and problem-solving. Few Democratic candidates sought this role. Few if any, given the climate, wanted to run on the Senate bill's guest worker or earned legalization provisions…

But once pinned with the label "pro-reform," most Democrats had little choice, and many rose to the occasion. Incumbent senator Maria Cantwell made a persuasive case in Washington state; Jim Webb took a similar line in Virginia. And if anything, the harder the job and higher the stakes, the better these sometimes reluctant reformers performed--nowhere more surprisingly or impressively than at the epicenter of the immigration debate, in Arizona.

It would be hard to imagine a tougher test. More illegal immigrants enter the United States by way of Arizona each year than come through California, Texas, and New Mexico combined. Human smugglers and their accomplices have driven state crime rates to the top of the national rankings. And unlike almost everywhere else in the nation, a majority--6 out of 10 Arizonans--told pollsters that immigration was one of the top issues determining how they would vote in the midterms. Still, or maybe because of this, Arizona became the place where candidates--all of them Democrats, unfortunately--showed Americans how to talk effectively about immigration reform.

Gov. Janet Napolitano set the tone. She didn't denounce the fence or other border enforcement--in fact, she led the way, over a year ago, in calling for deployment of the National Guard on the border. She talked tough about smugglers; she repudiated amnesty. But she also insisted relentlessly that border enforcement was only a first step toward the solution: comprehensive reform of the kind proposed by the Senate. The more firmly she held to this tough but pragmatic line, the more frenzied her opponent grew--and as he promised more and more draconian enforcement, her lead only widened….

As Election Day approached, the contrast between these Democrats and Republicans wasn't soft versus hard, as the House leadership had hoped. It was tough versus ugly--and polls showed voters, especially Hispanic voters, very clear about which approach they liked better.

…Will Republicans learn from this? Will the country? The results of the 2006 midterms are not a mandate for comprehensive reform--far from it. Still, they point the way toward change, opening the political space for better, more pragmatic policy by proving that it can be defended on Election Day. Randy Graf once boasted foolishly that if he couldn't win in Arizona, he couldn't win anywhere. And by the same token, if immigration pragmatists can triumph in Phoenix and Tucson, they should be able to win in any state.

It will still take a bipartisan majority to pass immigration reform. Democrats and Republicans will still have to compromise to get it done. And this may or may not happen in the 110th Congress. But one thing is clear and must be fixed: The Republican party has maneuvered itself onto the wrong side of the immigration issue.

The lesson here for Democrats as they take power in Washington is that the American people are by and large a pragmatic yet compassionate people. Despite what anti-immigration hardliners believe, the polling has been consistent since this issue came to the forefront, the American people favor an immigration policy that is firm but above all fair. How this will all shake out in the new Congress is yet to be seen. "Comprehensive Reform" has been to a catch-all term used by many to mean anything that's not the Tancredo/Dobbs/Buchanan brand of restrictionist immigration policy. It will be up to this upcoming Congress, immigration advocates, organized labor, and the American people to determine what the true face of comprehensive reform will look like. Let's hope we can finally get it right this time around.

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