The Political Scene
Return of the Nativist
Behind the Republicans’ anti-immigration frenzy.
by Ryan Lizza December 17, 2007
The New Yorker
Another catalyst was the peculiar dynamics of this year’s Republican Presidential campaign. In 1999, when Bush made his initial foray into Presidential politics, he already had credibility with conservatives, largely based on his tax-cut promises and his religious convictions. It gave him latitude to be heretical on other issues. By contrast, the 2008 Presidential campaign features five leading Republican candidates, each of whom is viewed with suspicion by at least part of the so-called base. Unlike Bush in 1999 and 2000, Romney, Giuliani, Huckabee, McCain, and Thompson have spent most of the campaign trying to establish their bona fides with conservatives. The effect has been to push the field farther to the right, especially on immigration.
Anti-immigrant passion also owes much to the disproportionate influence of a few small states in the nominating process. National polls show that, as an issue, immigration is far behind the Iraq war, terrorism, the economy, and health care as a concern to most Americans; a recent Pew poll shows that, nationally, only six per cent of voters offer immigration as the most important issue facing the country. But in Iowa and South Carolina, two of the three most important early states, it is a top concern for the Republicans who are most likely to vote. “It’s the influx of illegals into places where they’ve never seen a Hispanic influence before,” McCain told me. “You probably see more emotion in Iowa than you do in Arizona on this issue. I was in a town in Iowa, and twenty years ago there were no Hispanics in the town. Then a meatpacking facility was opened up. Now twenty per cent of their population is Hispanic. There were senior citizens there who were—‘concerned’ is not the word. They see this as an assault on their culture, what they view as an impact on what have been their traditions in Iowa, in the small towns in Iowa. So you get questions like ‘Why do I have to punch 1 for English?’ ‘Why can’t they speak English?’ It’s become larger than just the fact that we need to enforce our borders.”
Mike Huckabee is the latest victim of the Republican shift on the immigration issue. We talked on what should have been a happy day for Huckabee. According to at least one poll, he had taken the lead from Romney in Iowa, and was enjoying a sustained burst of positive media coverage. “Oh, man, it’s been unbelievable,” he said in his winning, Gomer Pyle-like voice. “We’re up in New Hampshire and I’ve got more press coming to the events than I’ve got people. I’m not kidding. It’s unbelievable. We have so many people coming we can’t fit them in the places.” But Huckabee’s excitement was tempered by Romney’s persistent attacks on his immigration record as governor of Arkansas, and he seemed to be grappling with the intensity of the question among Republicans. “It does appear to be the issue out here wherever we are,” he told me. “Nobody’s asked about Iraq—doesn’t ever come up. The first question out of the box, everywhere I go—Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, Texas, it doesn’t matter—is immigration. It’s just red hot, and I don’t fully understand it.”
Romney has not been similarly reflective in trying to discern the source of the issue’s power. Rather, he has quickly and easily adopted the negative code words of the anti-immigration movement—“sanctuary cities,” “amnesty”—and has tried to attach them to Giuliani and Huckabee. In doing so, he became the first top-tier candidate to seize the Tancredo mantle. My own sense, from talking to Huckabee, a Southern populist, and McCain, a border-state senator, is that they are genuinely appalled by Romney’s tactics, not only because of the damage to their campaigns but also because of the damage they believe he’s doing to the Party’s image. Romney’s communications director, Matt Rhoades, said, “Both Senator McCain and Governor Huckabee have decided that to win in 2008, Republicans need to be more like the Democrats when it comes to illegal immigration. That’s the wrong course. McCain-Kennedy”—Edward Kennedy was a sponsor of the initial legislation—“was the wrong course. Governor Huckabee’s plan to give tuition breaks to illegal immigrants was the wrong course. America doesn’t need two politicians with records on illegal immigration that are in tune with Senator Clinton.”
“He’s clearly distorted my record as well as my position,” Huckabee told me. “But I’m not interested in getting in a war with him to see which of us can be the meanest son of a gun running for President.” He went on, “My experience has been—not just in politics but in any realm of life—when people keep saying something over and over, and louder and louder, it’s to compensate that they don’t want you to know that’s really never what they believed.” Nevertheless, last week, Huckabee, too, found his inner Tancredo: he announced the Secure America Plan, which included tough language about enforcement and pressuring illegal immigrants to return home. This leaves McCain as the only Republican candidate who hasn’t folded in the face of Romney’s attacks. At the press lunch in Virginia, after McCain had discussed his warm relations with several candidates, a reporter asked about Romney. “I’ve never known him,” McCain said icily. “I’ve never had a relationship with him.”
Barack Obama, during a recent interview with the editorial board of the Boston Globe, predicted that the Republicans will run next fall on two issues: terrorism and immigration. When I asked a leading Republican strategist and former Bush lieutenant if he agreed, he said merely, “I hope not.” He argued that it was incorrect to think that immigration was the second most important challenge facing the United States. “We need to address other issues, like the economy, health care, and education,” he said. When I asked Tancredo if he was leading his party “over a cliff” or “to the promised land,” he laughed and said, “I see manna out there.”
The evidence so far, though, points to a cliff. In several election contests in the past two years, Republicans tried and failed to deploy immigration as a campaign weapon. This November, Republicans in Virginia and New York who ran on the issue were defeated. Not even Eliot Spitzer’s misbegotten plan to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, which was thought to be ruinous for Democrats, has damaged the Democratic Party; rather, the Party increased its numbers in local races around the state. McCain says that last year he saw how toothless the issue was in Arizona. “Congressman J. D. Hayworth had a pretty good opponent,” he said of the former Republican from Arizona, who lost his seat in the 2006 midterm election. “J.D. ran just on the issue of immigration, in a moderate but Republican district. Arizona State University is there, in Phoenix. And J.D. got beat by four points in the general election. There was a guy who was going to take Jim Kolbe’s seat”—an Arizona congressman who retired last year. “Jim was there twenty years, and had always carried the district well. The Republican candidate was another one where immigrant, immigration, anti-illegal immigration was his theme. He lost by twelve points. So I think there is a lesson in some of those elections when people use anti-immigration as a major part of their campaign. But I also know that it galvanizes a certain part of the Republican Party.”
Far from fearing the immigration issue, some Democratic strategists are quietly cheering how the subject has played out. Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist who has closely studied the politics of the issue, says simply, “The Bush strategy—enlightened on race, smart on immigration, developed in Texas and Florida with Jeb Bush—has been replaced by the Tancredo-Romney strategy, which is demonizing and scapegoating immigrants, and that is a catastrophic event for the Republican Party...”
Continued in "The New Yorker and the Nativist: Part III"