Political Hay

Tancredo Time

Why immigration restrictionists may regret their favorite congressman's presidential campaign.

By 1.18.07

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You might have missed it while reporters were swooning over the ambitions of Barack Obama, but another candidate announced on Tuesday that he was exploring a presidential bid. Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) formed a committee to begin raising money for what he admitted would be an "arduous and uphill battle" for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.

Tancredo supporters don't have the audacity to hope their man will get the Obama treatment from the media anytime soon. Nobody will mistake the slightly rumpled five-term congressman for the dapper, charismatic Obama. And while the famous freshman senator from Illinois downplays his reliably liberal voting record by spouting uncontroversial platitudes, Tancredo has thrown himself into the polarizing immigration debate with a single-mindedness that unnerves even many conservatives.

Yet it is precisely Tancredo's focus on immigration that makes him a hero to border-conscious voters who don't see any other major politician willing to address their concerns. These voters have become increasingly alienated from the Republican Party and have been searching for creative ways to convey their disappointment with the GOP leadership.

There has been an organized effort to deny Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) the Republican National Committee chairmanship because of his co-sponsorship of an immigration bill offering a "path to citizenship" for approximately 85 percent of the country's illegal immigrants. Like-minded activists helped hand Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), an immigration hawk with even less chance of winning the nomination than Tancredo, a surprise victory in an Arizona straw poll. From the Minutemen to the streets of Maricopa County, there are Americans who aren't just angry about our porous borders -- they see it as the most important political issue of our time.

With Tancredo getting closer to throwing his hat into the ring, these activists are no doubt pleased to finally have someone to vote for. John McCain was a lead sponsor of the Senate immigration bill; Rudolph Giuliani is on record supporting a guest-worker program along the same lines. Tancredo opposes all such proposals as thinly disguised amnesties. While other prospective candidates were sitting on the fence, he was sponsoring legislation to build one along the U.S.-Mexico border.

But immigration restrictionists should perhaps temper their enthusiasm. Paradoxically, a poorly executed presidential campaign could set back their movement.

For one thing, Tancredo's decision to enter the race was also a concession that no leading Republican presidential candidate was going to take a hard line on immigration. For the past year, Tancredo has been telling backers and reporters alike that he would run only if he failed to persuade a top-tier GOP contender -- "someone taller and with better hair," he frequently quipped -- to take up the issue. Obviously, McCain, Giuliani, and Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback were never going to fit the bill, but perhaps Mitt Romney or the pre-Macaca George Allen could have.

By running what will end up being a single-issue immigration campaign (whether he wants it to be one or not), Tancredo risks relieving the frontrunners -- who already don't seem too concerned about what restrictionists think of them -- of any need to appeal to his constituency. And if he does poorly, Tancredo will become Exhibit A in his opponents' case that immigration enforcement isn't an election winner.

Immigration hawks are still reeling from their losses in 2006, including John Hostettler, the former House immigration subcommittee chairman, in Indiana and both J.D. Hayworth and Randy Graf in Arizona. They also were too quick to tie their political fortunes to overheated and inept candidates who made casual proposals for forced labor camps and complained about the way Satan was interfering with their campaign fundraising.

After these episodes -- each carefully woven into the conventional wisdom by supporters of guest workers -- an unimpressive Tancredo performance would be a huge blow.

It gets worse. By launching a quixotic presidential campaign instead of running for re-election or making a more promising bid for Colorado's open Senate seat, Tancredo may leave his pro-enforcement contingent in the House without a well known public voice. Tancredo has chaired the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus since 1999. Last year, the group played a key role in persuading the House GOP leadership to stand firm against both the White House and the Senate on immigration. Other leaders can surely be found -- Congressman James Sensenbrenner also played a crucial part -- but not all of them would back the full range of the caucus's immigration-policy prescriptions.

America needs to have a constructive debate about immigration, one that recognizes the paradox observed by Robert J. Samuelson: "To make immigration succeed, we need to curb some immigration." Far from being anti-immigrant, real border enforcement can help us better assimilate newcomers to our shores.

Maybe by running for president Tancredo can facilitate this debate. But if recent single-issue immigration candidacies are any guide, his campaign should be greeted as skeptically as any Democratic-sponsored guest worker program.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.