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
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!"
The Super Tuesday primaries did not decide the nominating process as
some thought they might. But though the Democrats will battle on into
the summer, the Republican outcome is no longer in any real doubt. In
particular, Mitt Romney, the last of the viable presidential candidates
who thought a Dobbsian attack on illegal immigration was the ticket to
success, emerged with his candidacy crippled as Sen. John McCain's
major state victories ensured his eventual nomination.
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 Ann 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
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
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 on virtually everything) 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, where Cuban-Americans helped supply the margin that made
McCain a winner, that factor was devastating for 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 stance as the "Christian
candidate" on abortion trumped Romney's anti-amnesty rants. Indeed,
even after national conservative talk show hosts spent a week pumping
up Romney, Huckabee and McCain split the southern states with the
former Massachusetts governor coming up a pitiful last virtually
everywhere in Dixie.
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, which he rightly proclaims the number one issue
facing the nation and not Central Americans who want to fill
low-income jobs in this country was how we needed to define national
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
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 impressive wins would have been
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
But this will mean a 2008 general 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.