Politics & Policy

The Tancredo Paradox

His issue is ascendant while the battleground shifts.

Rep. Tom Tancredo has announced that he will not seek a sixth term in Congress in 2008 but will continue his long-shot campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. His reelection to another term in Congress would have been a slam dunk, whereas he freely admits that he has virtually no chance to actually win his party’s nomination for president. What’s going on?

The pundits and political analysts who believe Tancredo blundered in choosing an impossible goal — the presidential campaign — while forsaking a slam-dunk reelection to Congress need to follow Ayn Rand’s admonition: “examine your premises.”

Tancredo’s campaigns have never been about winning or holding onto office. Tancredo’s political life is all about “moving the ball forward,” the ball in this instance being the protection of national sovereignty and the struggle to resist and ultimately defeat radical Islamic terrorism. He believes he can do that best by leaving Congress for a larger stage.

From the beginning his presidential campaign has been about influencing the 2008 Republican nominating process and the party platform on immigration control. He knew he did not have a serious shot at winning the party’s nomination, but he could steer the party away from the Bush administration’s disastrous flirtation with amnesty. He has already achieved that goal within the Republican party and even Nancy Pelosi now runs from the amnesty lobby.

Contrary to pundits, it is not Tancredo who is on a slippery slope to political oblivion. John McCain, Lindsay Graham, Mel Martinez, and other Republican insiders miscalculated public support for a new amnesty program when they followed Bush on “comprehensive reform,” but Tom Tancredo got it right. But unfortunately, the Washington political establishment will forgive a backbench maverick like Tancredo for being wrong on a major issue, but they cannot forgive him for being right when it embarrasses the hell out of them.

Tancredo has decided to give up the Washington party game, and he is now mapping a new course that depends not on backroom deals within a dysfunctional party leadership but on the power of nonpartisan grassroots activism. That citizen activism defeated two “done deal” amnesty bills backed by powerful coalitions. The question of the hour is, can that citizen activism be organized and focused to actually enact needed legislation as well as block bad legislation. The congressional stalemate on immigration policy will not last forever and there may be irresistible pressure to act when a new president is sworn in on January 20, 2009.

The cause Tancredo championed alone for so many years now has many voices of support and leadership in the House of Representatives, where his enforcement-first proposals have become the Republican mainstream. Even the Bush White House has reluctantly concluded that the American public will never accept any “comprehensive” reform or new guest worker programs until the federal government can demonstrate secure borders and serious interior enforcement of employment laws. The most savvy voices in the Democratic Party are telling the Latino activist groups to “cool it” until 2009, fearing a voter backlash in 2008 if Democrats are perceived as weak on this issue.

Anyone who thinks the public sentiment favoring immigration law enforcement is limited to conservative Republicans or veterans in the Minutemen should look at the reaction within the New York Democratic Party to Governor Spitzer’s proposal to give driver’s licenses to illegal aliens. The rebellion among blue-collar Democrats in New York has already forced Spitzer to modify his proposal. Republicans in New York are unified in their opposition to the proposal while Democrats are deeply divided.

The growing strength of the Tancredo position is seen in the fact that attacks on him from open borders groups now avoid the policy issues and resort to dubious political warnings about the Republican loss of Hispanic voters. Such alarms are based on misreading of the electoral history and demographics. New immigrants in low-wage jobs have always voted largely Democrat in the first generation and slowly become more Republican over decades. The Bush-Cheney ticket did not attract 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004 by promoting Bush’s amnesty proposals, they did it by selling traditional conservative themes of entrepreneurship, educational opportunity, and national security. Pandering to the National Council of La Raza is the surest pathway to electoral disaster, not a formula for Republican success.

The greatest irony of all is that it is precisely the ascendancy of the Tancredo’s tough enforcement credo that has denied him the “wedge issue” he needs to garner support in his presidential primary campaign. With Giuliani, Romney, and Thompson all sounding like Tom Tancredo on the issue of illegal immigration, Republican primary voters who agree with Tancredo on the issue see little need to back the unknown Colorado congressman as their standard bearer against Hillary Clinton. His proposals are now indisputably mainstream, much to the chagrin of the liberal media and the open-borders lobby.

Tom Tancredo will not be the Republican nominee for president in 2008, nor will he be a member of the 111th Congress when it convenes in January of 2009. Yet, it is obvious that Tancredo has already cast a long shadow over the 2008 election. Because his message resonates with voters, he is also likely to cast a shadow over the national debates in 2009 and beyond.

— C. Q. Lincoln is the pseudonym of a former Reagan administration official and California think tank executive.

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