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Know-Nothings Who Know Better

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, November 30, 2007

Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani did a fine job achieving their objectives in Wednesday's Republican presidential debate: Each thoroughly discredited the other.

They also disgraced themselves as they pandered relentlessly to the growing anti-immigrant feeling in their party.

Mike Huckabee and John McCain were the only candidates willing to suggest what now seems unmentionable: Immigrants, even those here illegally, are human beings and shouldn't be used as political playthings.

At least Tom Tancredo, the Colorado congressman whose railing against immigration has become his mission in life, was consistent with his past. He had every right to say, with glee, that his rivals were "trying to out-Tancredo Tancredo." It was a perfect description of the evening.

The CNN/YouTube debate was a depressing spectacle. There was little inspiration for the future, no sense that Republicans are grappling with why their party has become so unpopular, and few departures from rigid adherence to the party line on taxes, guns, gay rights and a slew of other questions.

Oh, yes, the candidates were all for big spending cuts -- but only of the vague, across-the-board variety. When the brave foes of Washington's largess were confronted with a question about eliminating farm subsidies, they morphed into big-government guys.

Bold about slashing budgets earlier in the debate, Giuliani was judiciousness itself when it came to farmers. Farm spending cuts, he insisted, should not be done "simplistically." No, no, "we've got to do this very carefully."

Romney, who kept coming back to the dangers of runaway government outlays, insisted that farm subsidies were different because "it's important for us to make sure that our farmers are able to stay on the farm." Romney helpfully explained all this opportunism by ticking off the list of states besides Iowa, home of the first presidential nominating caucus, where farmers loom large. He sounded as if he were merrily counting delegate votes in his head.

But it was on immigration that Giuliani and Romney demonstrated for all to see that winning matters more to them than anything else.

Giuliani in particular had been warmly inclined toward immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, when he was mayor of liberal and diverse New York.

Here's Giuliani in 1996: "The anti-immigration issue that's now sweeping the country in my view is no different than the movements that swept the country in the past," he said. "You look back at the Chinese Exclusionary Act, or the Know-Nothing movement -- these were movements that encouraged Americans to fear foreigners, to fear something that is different, and to stop immigration." That's an excellent description of the current moment.

But on Wednesday, Giuliani played right into the feelings he once condemned and played down his past -- even if he couldn't fully deny it. After Romney assailed Giuliani for turning New York into a "sanctuary city," Giuliani said that Romney had employed illegal immigrants to do work on his Massachusetts home, transforming it into a "sanctuary mansion."

Romney, in turn, asked Giuliani if he was saying that a person who hired a company for home improvement work should be expected to ask someone in the work crew who had "a funny accent" to prove he was here legally. The exchange made both men look very small.

But there did come the heroic moments from Huckabee and McCain -- moments that may have done them little good with the GOP's primary voters.

When Romney attacked Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, for supporting a proposed state program under which some children of illegal immigrants would have gotten help to attend college, Huckabee stuck to his guns. "In all due respect, we're a better country than to punish children for what their parents did," Huckabee said. I hope he's right.

Huckabee, the first male in his family to graduate from high school, got in a nice dig at Romney's very privileged background by noting: "I worked my way through college."

At a lunch with reporters yesterday, Huckabee did not back down a bit on immigration. "You can't just pander to the anger and hostility," he said. "If that costs me the election, then the country can pick a different guy."

As for McCain, he seemed disgusted by the odor of the nativist compost being spread around the stage. "This whole debate saddens me a little bit," he said. Of immigrants, he dared to declare: "These are God's children as well, and they need some protections under the law, and they need some of our love and compassion." I hope God blesses McCain for that.

What happened on Wednesday night is actually scary. A legitimate concern over the failures of our national immigration policy is being transformed into an ugly attempt to turn immigrants into scapegoats for all our discontents. The real shame is that both Romney and Giuliani know better.

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