Do the Republican presidential candidates understand the gravity of the moment? In 2012, the nation must choose between inevitable (and possibly abrupt) economic collapse and a return to a modicum of prudence by the federal government.
Maybe it's the nature of these cattle call debates, and, surely, it is partly the result of instigation by the liberal press, but viewers watching the last several debates will not come away with a sense of the seriousness of the moment. Instead, they will have been treated to the candidates' views on Rick Perry's decision to mandate Gardasil vaccines (delivered by what Rep. Bachmann histrionically called "a government needle"), a spirited discussion about whether Mitt Romney was quick enough to fire a lawn mowing company when he learned that some of their employees might be illegal and seemingly endless discussions about how best to build a fence on the southern border. Should it be steel and barbed wire or should it be virtual? Should we deploy drones in Texasstan and Arizonastan? How about "boots on the ground"? Should it be electrified with enough juice to fry anyone who touches it? (Cain says that was a joke.)
This is not to suggest that Republicans who are passionate about illegal immigration compromise their principles, but it's a matter of priorities. We are facing an emergency. If the federal government fails to reverse course on Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, spending, regulation and entitlements, we won't have a country that immigrants will be attracted to anyway -- legal or otherwise.
In fact, that's already happening. It's the amazing missing fact amid all of the posturing over illegal immigration. Douglas S. Massey, of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton, told The New York Times, "No one wants to hear it, but the flow has already stopped. For the first time in 60 years, the net traffic has gone to zero and is probably a little bit negative." The Pew Hispanic Center reports that the number of illegal Mexican immigrants in the U.S. has declined, and that fewer than 100,000 illegal border-crossers and visa-violators from Mexico were caught in 2010, compared with an estimated 525,000 annually from 2000 to 2004. A recent Mexican census found four million more people than projected, suggesting that millions who might in the past have migrated north have stayed home.
Obviously, this doesn't mean that the problem is solved. Mexicans are not the only illegal immigrants (though they do account for 6 out of 10), and some of the causes for the decline -- the poor economy in the U.S., increased drug trafficking along the border, improved opportunities in Mexico -- may change. But it does suggest that the urgency with which Republican hopefuls treat the matter is misplaced. The spending catastrophe coming from the Obama administration is an emergency. The flow of illegal immigrants is not.
With the exception of one comment by Mitt Romney in Nevada to the effect that all of the candidates are great supporters of legal immigration, the entire flavor of these Republican debates could plausibly be interpreted by Hispanic voters as hostile. And that's even before President Obama begins to demagogue it -- as he surely will.
Republicans do not have to win a majority of the Hispanic vote to defeat Barack Obama. But if they can deny him the huge majority (67 percent) he achieved in 2008, it would be significant in light of the president's abysmal standing with white voters (33 percent).
The way has already been prepared. From a high of 82 percent support in 2009 (Gallup), Hispanic support for Obama has dropped 34 points to 48 percent last month. The president has even lost 8 percent among African Americans!
Republicans should be appealing for Hispanic support. Emphasize the terrible economy. By all means talk about jobs. Focus on the consequences of fiscal Armageddon. But Republicans should never discuss illegal immigration without first praising the contributions that legal Hispanic and other immigrants have made to American society, which has the advantage of being true. They should showcase high-ranking Republican office holders, entertainers and businessmen of Hispanic ancestry. They should learn a few words of Spanish. Then, and only then, should they express their opposition to illegal immigration. How you say it matters as much as what you say.
Republicans are always going to be demonized by the press and the Democrats as haters and bigots. They should be smart enough to expect that and outmaneuver it. So far, this year, they're walking right into a trap.