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Know-Nothing Flameout

February 7, 2008 By:
Jonathan S. Tobin
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This is not a good week to be Lou Dobbs. After spending the last few years beating the drums for a nationwide political insurrection, CNN's favorite alarmist must face up to the fact that voters have rejected his polemics in which global trade and immigration are the twin evils threatening America.

Indeed, the failure of supporters of his views to gain control of either major party was enough for poor Lou to want to dump cold water on the entire spectacle that has transfixed Americans in a red-hot primary season. This past weekend, as that certainty left Dobbs fulminating, many of us who have looked on his jeremiads with increasing dismay are merely answering: "Amen!"

Though Super Tuesday primary votes were still uncounted as this piece went to press, there appeared to be little doubt that Mitt Romney, the last of the viable presidential candidates who thought a Dobbsian attack on illegal immigration was the ticket to success, would end the day with his candidacy crippled as Sen. John McCain appeared ready to secure the nomination.

'Liberal' Heresy
Along with the last two Democrats standing -- Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton -- McCain had specifically opposed the anti-immigration hysteria that has become one of the major issues of the year, if not the decade. As a co-sponsor of a sane, if ultimately doomed, attempt to reform the current unworkable immigration legal system, McCain's candidacy was widely pronounced dead in the water last year specifically because he had gone "liberal" on immigration.

That he was joined in this heresy by other noted "left-wingers" such as President Bush and editors of the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, did not deter the solons of the airwaves of talk radio or the wilder members of the pundit class, such as the execrable Anne Coulter (who claims she will "campaign" for Hillary Clinton to demonstrate her disdain for McCain) from labeling him a traitor to his party for suggesting that 12 million people who were currently here without permission could not just be deported, and that the only economically rational and humane answer was to offer this population a path to citizenship.

Though it is true that McCain has wandered off the GOP reservation at times (most lamentably, with his campaign finance reform scheme that was passed by Congress, but which has done nothing to help the problem it sought to solve while undermining free-speech rights), immigration was something different. To what seemed to be the majority of the Republican electorate, the charge of offering "amnesty" for illegals was supposed to be a third rail offense in 2008. This was the year that nativism was going to triumph.

That was, at any rate, exactly what Romney and Rudy Giuliani, whom national polls showed as the leading Republican candidate for most of 2007, figured. Although both of these men were defenders of immigration rights when they were, respectively, governor of Massachusetts and mayor of New York City, as candidates, they morphed into snarling, Dobbs-like advocates of alarm about the danger allegedly posed to the nation by millions of hard-working, poorly paid busboys and maids who were discussed as if they were the moral equivalent of Al Qaeda.

But carrying on about immigration was not enough to save Giuliani's candidacy when it started to head south in the fall. Nor did it do much for the moribund effort of Fred Thompson, who also figured to benefit from McCain's collapse.

McCain eventually acknowledged that the Congress and the people had rejected his reform bill, and there seemed no point in beating a dead horse. He did embrace a stance of more border security, which had always been part of his scheme. But there was no doubt that the charge of "amnesty" hung over him.

And yet here we are in February with McCain the all-but-crowned king of a party that supposedly was as unlikely to nominate an immigration-reform advocate as they would one who supported gay marriage.

What happened?

First, although there is no denying that the anti-immigrant backlash had strength, it was never as big as its authors pretended it was. Even among voters in Republican primaries, illegal immigration simply wasn't the magic bullet that Romney thought it was. His CEO style of leadership predicated on exploiting popular tastes (even if it meant changing his own positions) turned out to be too clever by half.

Hispanic voters -- not all of whom are Democrats, and many of whom share the Republican frame of reference about national security and social values -- also realized that the anti-alien stance was a thinly-disguised attempt to intimidate Latinos. In a state such as Florida, that factor hurt Romney.

More to the point, no matter how popular it might have become, immigration-bashing could never compete with other more traditional issues. For some on the right, Mike Huckabee's bigoted stance as the "Christian candidate" on abortion trumped Romney's anti-amnesty rants.

As for making illegals a national security issue, common sense won out. Running as the man who championed the troop surge in Iraq when most Republicans were running for cover, McCain was able to explain why the fight with Islamism -- and not Central Americans who want to fill low-income jobs in this country -- was how we needed to define national security.

A Little Bit of Luck
Like any successful candidate, McCain had his share of luck. Most of it centered on the tactical mistakes made by his opponents. But one also cannot underestimate the justified reluctance of all his rivals but Romney to personally take on a man whose five-plus years in the Hanoi Hilton renders him permanently invulnerable to assaults on his character.

Yet the fact remains that if revulsion against illegal immigration, and the nativist groundswell lying beneath it, were as much the will of the people as some believe, McCain's wins would have been impossible.

The debate is far from over. Know-nothingism will, no doubt, be back with a vengeance next January, when a new Congress will try again on the issue.

But this will mean a 2008 election in which immigration won't dictate the outcome. Between McCain and either Obama or Clinton, there will be more than enough real topics to debate on a host of real foreign, security, economic issues without a drumbeat of manufactured hysteria about immigrants in low-paying jobs that most Americans wouldn't do under any circumstances.

For Dobbs, this means democracy is failing. For the majority of Americans, descendants of immigrants every one, it sounds like at least on this point, sanity will prevail for a while.  

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