Watching the Democratic debate Sunday night on Univision was a bit of a struggle, as it turns out that, for someone of my abilities, listening to a Spanish translation over the English original is more difficult than listening to either separately. (See Latina Lista’s take on the debate here.) I was eager to see how the candidates would react to questions about immigration in front of a nationwide Hispanic audience, knowing that they would be treading on thin ice with some percentage of independent restrictionist voters.
My favorite moment of the debate was when moderator María Elena Salinas asked Senators Clinton, Obama, and Dodd why, since none of the 9/11 hijackers entered the U.S. undocumented across the Mexican border, they had voted to build a wall there instead of a wall along the Canadian border. I had been wondering the same thing. They all ducked the question, instead reasserting their support for the comprehensive immigration reform legislation that failed earlier this summer. Nearly everyone felt compelled to reiterate the need for “border security,” just as every Democratic statement on Iraq is accompanied by a reflexive bleating of “support the troops.”
The NY Times reported (no permalink available yet):
Richardson, who has opposed the wall, said he would commit to comprehensive reform in the first year.I also enjoyed the moment that Richardson, speaking to a Hispanic audience in Miami of which presumably some substantial portion was Cuban-American, called for a repeal of the Cuban embargo. The crowd was conspicuously quiet when he finished. Later, Chris Dodd asserted that he would also lift the embargo, since 50 years and a ruined Cuban economy later, Fidel is still in power.
''If you're going to build a 12 foot wall. You know what's going to happen? A lot of 13-foot ladders.''
Chalk one up for Richardson and Dodd: like Obama telling that crowd in Michigan that the U.S. auto industry is broken, they told a sympathetic audience exactly what they didn’t want to hear. Too bad Obama couldn’t do the same this time.
Mike Gravel had a refreshing take on the immigration debate. He said that people are using undocumented immigrants as scapegoats for the failings of the government in education, health care, and jobs. We have to blame somebody, and that ends up being immigrants. This is a point that should be made more often.
And I missed this bit, which certainly makes a good soundbite:
Clinton criticized the immigration bill proposed in the last Congress, dominated by Republicans. That legislation would have penalized those who help illegal immigrants. ''I said it would have criminalized the good Samaritan. It would have criminalized Jesus Christ,'' she said.Whoah! That’s strong stuff! FAIR, the Minutemen, and Tom Tancredo will be sure now to think twice before trying to criminalize the nonprofit agencies helping out José, María, and Jesús down at the community center.
To sum up, by appearing at the first-ever Spanish-language presidential debate on an increasingly influential niche media outlet, the Democrats have collectively effectively picked sides in this immigration battle. They know their words to a Hispanic audience could be used against them in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina by their opponents, and later by Republicans. They went ahead with the debate because of a political calculation that the Hispanic votes they’ll receive outweigh the restrictionist votes they probably wouldn’t get anyway. The secondary calculation each candidate (except Biden) made was that the debate was too important to miss. Each Republican candidate except for McCain came to the opposite conclusion: a debate in Spanish on Univision would be too risky to join. In spite of Karl Rove’s best efforts, Democrats have decided to campaign for the votes of Hispanics and Republicans have decided to campaign for the votes of restrictionists. It’ll be easier for the GOP once Bush is out of office—he muddied the water on this issue and alienated many otherwise faithful voters.
But the political lines are being drawn ever more clearly. Ironically, Rove’s political calculations in polarizing the national security debate had the unintended effect of torpedoing his hopes for a viable long-term appeal to Hispanic voters. One effect of 9/11 was increased border restrictions and widespread conservative anti-immigrant sentiment, which in turn polarized the immigration debate and drove Hispanics from the GOP.
Time will tell which voting bloc—Hispanics or restrictionists—will be more influential, but for the foreseeable future, politicians in both parties will have little choice in the matter. They will be swept along in this debate as the distance between the two sides grows ever wider.
Update: The final version of the NY Times story is now available, and it includes this:
None of the Democrats made any especially bold moves, although Mr. Dodd and former Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska said they would take steps to end the trade embargo with Cuba, and Mr. Richardson said he would consider it if President Fidel Castro released political prisoners.