Around 1900, at age 11 or so, Tom Tancredo's grandfather, an orphan, sailed, unaccompanied, from Italy to New York with a note pinned to his shirt, asking that he be directed to Iowa. In Manhattan he was told that, the ocean being in one direction, Iowa must be in the other direction, so he began to work his way west. More than two years later, having rather overshot Iowa, he arrived in Denver. Eight decades later he recalled seeing the Rocky Mountains and thinking, "If Iowa is past that, the hell with it."
Today, grandson Tom is a congressman representing Denver suburbs and voicing the sentiments of many Americans who are incandescent with anger about illegal immigration. Hence he is giving Republican Party officials nightmares about a boisterous Tancredo presentation of those sentiments in the 2008 Republican presidential primaries.
Tancredo says, "I'm too fat, too short and too bald" to be president. Actually, at 5 feet 8 inches "in my cowboy boots" and 177 pounds, he would have towered over President Madison, is 150 pounds lighter than President Taft was and has much more hair than did President Eisenhower. Still, Tancredo knows he is not going to be president and hopes "some tall guy with good hair" will make illegal immigration a big issue in 2008.
But he believes he will have to, and he recently has been to, among other places, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. He is consulting with Bay Buchanan, who, as Pat Buchanan's sister, knows something about mounting intraparty insurgencies. She expects he will run and hopes she will be Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote.
Tancredo knows his candidacy would be quixotic, and he worries that if he wins few votes his issue will be discounted. But he also knows that presidential primaries are, among other things, market research mechanisms whereby unserved constituencies are discovered and dormant issues brought to life.
Which is what worries Republican officials. They desperately want to avoid giving offense to the Hispanic vote, the rapidly growing -- and already the largest -- cohort in play in American politics. Hence the Bush administration's eagerness to get past hurricanes and Supreme Court nominations and to enactment of the president's immigration reforms.
The basic problem is that the nation's economy is ravenous for more immigrant labor than the system of legal immigration can currently provide. Furthermore, about 11 million illegal immigrants are in America. It would take a lot of buses -- 200,000 of them, bumper-to-bumper in a convoy 1,700 miles long -- to carry them back to America's border. America will not do that -- will not round up and deport the equivalent of the population of Ohio.
Tancredo agrees, and insists that no such draconian measure is necessary. His silver bullet is to "just enforce the law" -- the law against hiring illegal immigrants. Give employers computerized means of checking the status of job applicants, and, he says, the ones here illegally will go home. If only it were that simple. But the details of his plan are less important than his emphatic raising of an issue that many Americans believe is being ignored or treated gingerly for reasons of political calculation or political correctness.
He says that "The Disuniting of America," a 1992 book by one of liberalism's eminent intellectuals, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., alerted him to the dangers of the "cult of multiculturalism." Today's immigrants, he says, do not feel what his grandfather did -- "pressure to assimilate." Because most come from nearby countries in this hemisphere, they do not experience what is called the "psychological guillotine" of being severed from their old country by distance and the difficulty of transoceanic travel.
Elected in 1998, Tancredo is consistently obstreperous, meaning conservative as Republicans used to understand that. He voted against President Bush's prescription drug entitlement because he says we can't afford it, against Bush's education reform, the No Child Left Behind Act, because it is expands federal infringement of state responsibilities, and against the recent $50 billion appropriation for recovery from Hurricane Katrina because of insufficient accountability -- "Not one person on the [House] floor could tell you what it was being spent for." His proposal for paying for Katrina? "Sell 15 percent of all federal land." But not, he says temperately, Yellowstone Park.
Such high-voltage views will enable him to live off the land in 2008, depending on the free media attention that comes to a live wire. So Republicans may have found their Al Sharpton, a candidate who simply has no interest in being decorous.