The Issue the Democrats Dread

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, November 2, 2007

More significant than Hillary Clinton's supposed gaffe at the end of Tuesday's Democratic presidential debate is the subject around which she tiptoed so delicately: immigration. Democrats fear the issue because it could leave them with a set of no-win political choices.

Examined on its face, Clinton's statement on New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's proposal to let illegal immigrants obtain driver's licenses was careful and reasonable.

While acknowledging that current law on immigration is inadequate, she defended Spitzer's idea by noting that if illegal immigrants are going to drive anyway, licensing them would protect all drivers.

Yet Clinton eventually cut into the debate to amend her statement: "I just want to add, I did not say that it should be done." Her opponents jumped all over her. John Edwards accused her of saying "two different things in the course of about two minutes."

In the short run, Clinton's exquisite calibration of her positions was the issue. But her debate dance reflects a deeper worry among Democrats that Republicans are ready to use impatience with illegal immigration to win back voters dissatisfied with the broader status quo.

The issue is especially problematic because efforts to appease voters upset about immigration -- including a share of the African American community -- threaten to undercut the Democrats' large and growing advantage among Latino voters. For Republicans, the issue is both a way of changing the political subject from Iraq, the economy and the failures of the Bush presidency and a means of sowing discord in the Democratic coalition.

One poll finding this week that shook Democrats came in a survey conducted by Democracy Corps, a consortium organized by party consultants Stan Greenberg, Al Quinlan and James Carville. It asked voters to pick two from a list of seven problems that explain "why the country is going in the wrong direction."

The survey found that among independent voters, 40 percent -- by far the largest group -- picked this option: "Our borders have been left unprotected and illegal immigration is growing."

By contrast, a lack of action on health care was named by only 24 percent of independents as a core problem, and Iraq by 23 percent.

The Democracy Corps poll, along with a Pew Research Center survey released this week, found Democrats with substantial advantages over Republicans on a variety of measures. But many Democrats fear that the more trouble Republicans are in, the more they will be willing to use immigration to attempt a comeback.

This has created serious tensions among congressional Democrats. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the House Democratic Caucus chairman, has risked the ire of Latino groups by warning that the party must deal with concerns about illegal immigration.

"The debate to date has been a debate about corporate interests, [agriculture], the tourist industry and advocates of immigrants," he said in a telephone interview yesterday. "This is a debate in which the rest of America is left out.

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