Tasteless and questionable as it was for CNN to “co-sponsor” a Republican presidential debate with a pair of right-wing Washington think-tanks, at least the branding was accurate. There among the honored interlocutors were the authors of dismal failure and national disgrace in the Bush era, such as Paul Wolfowitz and David Addington, whose presence helpfully reminds us that to elect a Republican risks a presidency that will make the same gross moral and strategic errors, or worse. Listening to them talk about Iran, a nation that unlike Iraq or the Taliban is a real military power, it was clear that we will certainly edge closer to another war with almost any Republican in power.
What the debate also revealed again is that a Republican who dares to utter a few words of compassion or realism is likely to prove unacceptable to the base of that party.
Coming off his proposal to repeal child labor laws, so that schools can force nine year-olds to do the work of “unionized janitors,” it was surprising to hear Newt Gingrich appeal to human decency in resolving the immigration issue. But so he did, sensibly noting that deporting 11 million or more undocumented residents of the United States would be not only impractical but viciously cruel, it would mean ripping apart families that have lived here peacefully for generations. “I’m prepared to take the heat,” said the former Speaker, rather courageously, for insisting that the law should be enforced “with humanity” — and his opponents, notably Romney, brought that heat to a boil, attacking Gingrich for supposedly supporting “amnesty,” perennial buzzword of the anti-immigrant movement.
Actually, Gingrich doesn’t back amnesty per se — which usually indicates a “path to citizenship” — but his position is close enough to mean trouble from the GOP’s large nativist constituency. He prefers a selective service system for immigration, which would bring individual cases before boards of local citizens to decide whether any particular illegal immigrant should be deported or permitted to remain permanently, in a legal status that would be less than citizenship. As far as the immigrant-bashers are concerned, that’s amnesty and the hell with it.
What was dishonest in Romney’s response, however (especially coming from a man who hired illegal landscapers himself, presumably because they were cheap) is that he never said how he would deal with the estimated 11 or 12 million undocumented workers who are here today. The former Massachusetts governor, who helped drive thousands of jobs overseas in search of cheap labor as a financier and consultant, spoke enthusiastically of all the brainy immigrants he’d like to bring in legally — and of the necessity of “securing the border,” another tiresome platitude that is heard far more often than how it will be achieved. (The unspoken truth is that illegal immigration has dropped precipitously, deportations are up, and the American economy would benefit from more, not less, immigration of all kinds.)
Yet for all his promises to “enforce the law,” Romney never bothered to explain how he will deport 11 million or more, as a practical and humane policy. Nobody who knows much about the issue believes that it can be done. But what we know about Romney — and the rest of the Republicans, who rarely pass up a chance to denounce organized labor — is that they prefer a low-wage workforce unable to assert any rights. If the undocumented were suddenly able to speak out and act without fear, they would also be able to join unions, demand higher wages and health benefits, and refuse to be used against native-born workers.
If Gingrich takes the heat for his few words in defense of immigrant families, he was not the only Republican on stage to say something wise that will be used against him. Ron Paul sagely warned, as he has done many times before, that the “war on terror” and the “war on drugs” are flawed concepts that endanger constitutional liberty. Yet he also showed why libertarian ideologues like him are unfit to represent American ideals, when he claimed that all the money spent on foreign aid is wasted — in response to a question from Wolfowitz that specifically referred to the highly successful Bush administration program of HIV/AIDS assistance to poor nations. That discussion offered Rick Santorum a chance to shine, by denouncing the notion that Congress should “zero out” such foreign assistance programs, and to proclaim proudly that he had promoted the Bush AIDS programs in the Senate. No doubt he will too will have to take the heat — for acknowledging that American leadership cannot be based on military or economic power alone, and that as Jon Huntsman dared to say, America needs friends and allies in a changing world.
In the era of Tea Party jingoism, there is precious little space for that traditional Republican outlook — and plenty of room for smooth panderers like Romney.