Earlier this week, Tom Tancredo officially dropped out of the presidential race. His campaign had been plagued by anemic polling, insufficient fundraising, and the inability to gain any real traction. Perhaps the biggest problem Tancredo had was that he had no real niche that wasn't already filled by another more viable candidate. In the words of CNN political analyst Bill Schneider:
"I would say all of the other Republican candidates...adopted some parts of Tancredo's tough line on illegal immigration. Now, what happens when you out-Tancredo Tancredo? You don't need Tancredo anymore. And that's why he's getting out."Let's be honest. Tancredo stood no chance of winning the Republican nomination. However, his candidacy was important for one reason: He tapped into the anger stemming from illegal immigration and successfully pushed his Republican rivals further to the right on this issue. John McCain in particular learned the hard way about appearing soft on this issue.
Most Republicans and some Democrats get it now. Almost all of them are talking about border security, penalties for employers that hire illegal workers, and restricting social services for those who are not in the country legally. Tough new laws at the state level are addressing the failings of the federal government on this issue. People everywhere regardless of party are incensed about this issue and right now, the Republicans are paying a lot of attention to it.
However, the Democrats have remained relatively silent on this issue. And that is a big mistake. The Democrats' strategy is to let the Republicans appear so mean and dispirited towards "undocumented workers" that moderate voters and (especially) Latino voters in places like Florida, Texas, and the Southwest will penalize them at the ballot box. The Democrats seem to believe that by not demonizing and scapegoating (mostly Latino) illegal immigrants, they are cultivating a new politically loyal constituency, much like the solidly Democratic Black vote.
However, this strategy is flawed for several reasons:
1. Democrats stand to lose more votes than they could gain. Illegal immigration is hot. Republicans are as concerned about illegal immigration as Democrats are about Iraq and health care. Disaffected and moderate Republicans who might otherwise consider voting Democrat might view their softer immigration views as a dealbreaker. They could be so turned off by Democrats' perceived coddling of illegal immigrants that they continue to vote Republican. And the majority of Democrats also believe in adopting a harder line on this issue as well, so there's the added risk of Democrats voting Republican based on this issue alone.
2. Latino voters have lower rates of voter participation than Blacks and Whites. What's the point of cultivating a new base of voters if these voters can't be counted on to get to the polls? And what's the point of antagonizing voters who are actually more likely to show up? And since illegal aliens can't vote anyway, when do these politicians expect to be rewarded for not adopting a harder line on this problem? Or are politics more important than governance?
3. Legal immigrants are sometimes the angriest about illegal immigration. While most of these legal immigrants are sympathetic to illegal immigrants (because of fears of racism and scapegoating all immigrants, regardless of status), there is still a sizable minority that supports cracking down on this problem. These people who came to the United States legally often had to wait for months or years for the embassies and consulates abroad to approve their visa paperwork. They often had to pay hundreds of dollars in fees, attend rigorous interviews, and even undergo extensive background checks. In other words, these people had to work hard for their citizenship and permanent resident status. To see people who simply hopped over a border fence or overstayed their tourist or student visas makes these legal immigrants very, very angry. I have personal experience with this issue, as it was painstakingly difficult and prohibitively expensive for me to bring my wife to the United States as a permanent resident. Knowing that millions of people skirted this process by entering the country illegally is an insult to the millions of other people who played by the rules. So Democrats might win over the votes of illegal immigrants (if they ever become eligible to vote), but they also risk inflaming other immigrant groups--groups that tend to vote Democratic.
4. This is the strongest issue for Republicans in that their position on illegal immigration is more widely shared than their views on other issues. There are great philosophical differences between Republicans and Democrats on Iraq, health care, taxes, terrorism, the environment, gay marriage, and gun rights. However, only the most liberal Democrats support the rights of illegal immigrants. 2008 is a very winnable election for Democrats, but if they nominate someone who is soft on this issue, Republicans could potentially ride this issue all the way to a third consecutive Republican term at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
When Hillary Clinton received that question about driver's licenses for illegal immigrants at the debate in Philadelphia that presaged her downfall, the other Democrats should have used that as an impetus for developing their own immigration platform. Clinton actually gave a sensible answer on this issue, but she got in trouble when she tried to have it both ways. Of course, that debate was almost two months ago. But while this issue may have faded away from the forefront of the Democratic race, this issue has not faded away from the general electorate at all. And if the Democrats aren't careful, they are going to risk making a sizable portion of this electorate angry.
Hillary Clinton provided the first warning to Democrats. Tom Tancredo provided the second one. Should the 2008 election hinge on illegal immigration and the Democrats lose, the most ironic thing about this defeat would be that the Democrats lost the election by pandering to people who can't even participate in the election to begin with.