ON THE HILL
by Michael Crowley
Post date: 03.24.05
Issue date: 03.28.05
For most Washington Republicans, a berating from Karl Rove is the stuff of nightmares. For Tom Tancredo, it was the best thing that ever happened to him. One morning in April 2002, the representative from Colorado was driving to work when his cell phone rang. It was Rove calling from the White House. The president's fabled strategist had just finished reading a Washington Times article in which Tancredo, whose political obsession is to limit both legal and illegal immigration into this country, had warned the Bush administration to treat border control more seriously. As usual, Tancredo had delivered his point in cunningly theatrical terms. "Unless we do something significant to control our borders, we're going to have another event with someone waltzing across the borders. Then the blood of the people killed will be on this administration and this Congress." The quote sent Rove into a hollering rage--"he was absolutely screaming," Tancredo says--that forced the representative to pull off the road for safety. Among other things, Tancredo says, Rove called him a "traitor," and, with an impressive literary flourish, warned him "never again to darken the doorstep of the White House."
A typical Republican would maintain a shamed silence about such an episode. Tancredo immediately began sharing it with anyone who would listen. He has since recounted the tale of Rove's call to a long list of newspapers, magazines, TV shows, and speaking audiences, including everyone from The Dallas Morning News to Newsweek; from Roll Call to msnbc. Front and center on Tancredo's website is a December Fox News clip in which he speaks proudly of the White House's dislike for him. "[Rove]'s chewed out everyone in this building," Tancredo tells me with a smile. "The other people just don't talk about it."
Tancredo understands that talking about it is not an embarrassment. It's an opportunity--a chance to focus attention on his pet issue. Tancredo, who represents conservative suburbs of Denver, is turning himself into the avatar of a resurgent anti-immigration wing of the Republican Party. Just as President Bush is working to soften the party's image on immigration and lift its standing among Latino voters, Tancredo and his allies are demanding American troops at the Mexican border and severe restrictions on legal immigration--while warning of a looming threat to "Western civilization" itself.
For Republicans like Tancredo, controlling immigration has become a fixation, one matched perhaps only by the zealotry of GOP tax-cutters like Grover Norquist. And, if that obsession leads to bitter fights with the president, so be it. Sitting in an armchair in a meeting room near the House floor recently, Tancredo--who, in person, exudes an almost preternatural calm--explained his strategy. "If you want some attention in this town," he says, "take on the president [of] your own party. All of a sudden, when I did it, I was on Fox [constantly]. They must have looked at the weekly schedule and said, 'A minute here, three minutes there, let's get Tancredo. He'll say something outrageous.'" He breaks into a wide smile. "And I try!"
Outrageousness seems to come effortlessly. When The Denver Post profiled an illegal immigrant high school student with a 3.9 grade point average, Tancredo tried to have the boy deported. During his reelection race last fall, he aired campaign ads that included images of devastation from the Beslan school massacre in Russia and in which he declared, "Am I supposed to ignore the possibility of something like this happening here? Not on your life!" In one recent speech to activists in Washington, D.C., Tancredo averred that the Chinese government is "trying to export people" as a "way of extending their hegemony."
This would be just a story about a rabidly self-promotional representative were it not for the signs that Tancredo is helping to whip up a new xenophobia on the GOP right, with both short-term and long-term implications. In the near term, Tancredo's crusade threatens to block the sweeping immigration reform that is one of Bush's biggest second-term initiatives. At the same time, he's already looking past this lame-duck president and toward the 2008 presidential campaign. Having recently visited New Hampshire--and with plans to tour Iowa this spring--Tancredo is determined to make his laments about "the cult of multiculturalism" a central issue in the 2008 Republican primaries, even if it means a quixotic single-issue candidacy of his own. If he succeeds, Tancredo could set back by decades Rove's dream of a pro-GOP Latino America. Just when Republicans thought they had exorcised the ghost of Pat Buchanan, he's back. And he knows all the cable bookers in town.
Of all the fault lines in today's GOP, few of them are as intense as the party's split over immigration. "No issue, not one, threatens to do more damage to the Republican coalition than immigration," wrote National Review's David Frum late last year. An issue that seemed of third-tier importance gained new resonance after the September 11 attacks put a fresh national security spin on old conservative arguments. Since the attacks, the House Immigration Reform Caucus, which Tancredo chairs, has jumped from 16 members to 72. Meanwhile, a sputtering economy appears to be fueling resentment toward low-wage immigrant workers. A November 2003 Pew poll found that 54 percent of Republicans agree "completely" that immigration needs to be tightened--a 16 percent spike over five years. (By January 2005, 77 percent of respondents in an ABC News poll said they wanted to see tougher measures to keep immigrants out of the country.)
Last year, the Republicans in Tancredo's caucus nearly managed to derail an intelligence reform bill with strong White House backing, risking severe embarrassment to the president. Bush briefly placated the anti-immigrant conservatives with promises of new border-enforcement measures. But now they're even madder. Bush's latest budget plan provides funding for just 210 of the 2,000 new border-patrol agents authorized in the intelligence reform bill, and Republicans have watched with disgust as Democrats have used the issue to bash the president. Particularly in light of recent intelligence reports that Al Qaeda considers the Mexican border a prime entry point into the United States, "[Bush] is setting up the administration to be attacked by Democrats as not being serious on immigration and homeland security," says Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. Stein was appalled that, at an immigration subcommittee hearing, liberal Democrats "Maxine Waters, Loretta Sanchez, and Sheila Jackson Lee were all pounding away, sounding like they were laying the groundwork to nail the next major terror incident at the president's feet."
Fueled by such frustrations, Tancredo's immigration caucus is now gearing up for another big battle. House Republicans recently passed several provisions they weren't able to add to the intelligence reform bill--including ones making it harder for would-be immigrants to receive asylum and nearly impossible for illegal ones to obtain driver's licenses. Earlier this week, they attached the legislation to an Iraq war spending bill that the Senate--which is far more moderate on immigration issues--will be forced to consider.
That's not how the Senate or the White House wants things to play out. Bush and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist are hoping to avoid a fight over the House's tough provisions, which have a punitive air, until they are ready to offer a more comprehensive reform plan based on Bush's guest worker proposal, which the White House likes to describe with phrases like "humane" and "compassionate." (Expect to hear more of that rhetoric when Bush meets with Mexican President Vicente Fox next week.) Bush's plan, which is strongly backed by a business community in need of cheap manual labor, would grant illegal immigrants a work permit lasting up to three years before they had to return home. But conservatives suspect Bush's plan is a Trojan horse that will lead to amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants. "[Bush] has said it's not a pass to a green card," says Steven Camarota of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies. "If he does that, talk-show hosts are going to tear him a new butt."
And so will Tom Tancredo. On his side is a sense of populist righteousness, which holds that only elite Washington opinion is blocking the sweeping immigration crackdown that the United States is waiting for. "On immigration, there's a fundamental divide in America," says Camarota. "It's not a left-right divide. It's a divide between public opinion and elite opinion."
Tancredo says that divide could be seen during Arizona's recent Proposition 200 initiative, which bars illegal aliens from public services like schools and health care. "The opposition to it was the entire political establishment in Arizona. Both parties, all members of Congress, the two senators, the governor, the papers. The proponents were outspent two-and-a-half to one by the opponents. And it passed." What's more, he adds with pride, "It passed with 47 percent of Hispanic votes."
Arizona, Tancredo contends, is representative of a similar disconnect on the national level between elite and public opinion on immigration. Just as important, perhaps, Tancredo says Arizona put the lie to the notion that Latinos will flee the Republican Party if it stands for tighter border control. The GOP still has bad memories of the fallout from California's 1994 Proposition 187 referendum, which denied illegal aliens government benefits and provoked a backlash among Latinos. To the extent it provides a counterexample to Proposition 187, Tancredo says, the Arizona vote was "absolutely seminal."
Although he's a popular figure among Republican House colleagues who appreciate his immigration crusade, Tancredo isn't exactly beloved on Capitol Hill. During the 2004 election, a political action committee he founded, Team America (which is chaired by Pat Buchanan's sister, Bay) funded primary opponents running against two of his pro-immigration GOP colleagues, Arizona's Jim Kolbe and Utah's Chris Cannon. Such fratricidal tactics are verboten within the GOP ranks, and bringing the subject up leads him to brag about another fierce dressing-down from another highly feared Republican. "Ooh, doggies!" he says. "[Tom] DeLay called me in and said, 'You're finished, kaput. You cannot think of making a career in this place!'" As with his Rove encounter, Tancredo seems to wear this as a badge of honor. "I'll never get a committee chair, I'll never be a subcommittee chairman, whip team member, cheering squad, I don't know, whatever the hell. I will never be any of those things."
But Tancredo clearly cares less about career advancement in the House than the advancement of his ideas. And that's not likely to be good news for the GOP. Politics is as much about atmospherics as policy. And, in that sense, GOP conservatives may not want Tom Tancredo to be their public face on immigration. A former schoolteacher and one-time head of a libertarian think tank in Golden, Colorado, Tancredo is prone to wandering away from the nuts-and-bolts questions of wages and border security into more abstract, and more politically perilous, theorizing.
"There's a broader and long-term goal here," Tancredo explains. It emerges that he is a disciple of Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington, who believes that the world is divided into competing civilizations and that the character of the United States is threatened by Latino immigration. "It's the Samuel Huntington perspective. Who are we? That's something we need to work on. America is wrestling with an identity crisis. Part of it is a result of what I call the 'cult of multiculturalism.' The idea that there is nothing--nothing--of value in Western civilization, that we have nothing to offer the world, that we have nothing to offer as a viable society, that everything we have is bad and ugly." He continues, "If we are truly in a clash of civilizations, if Samuel Huntington's right about that, which I happen to believe, then it is important for us to understand who we are. What does it mean to be part of Western civilization? Are there inherent values that are worth anyone's allegiance?" Though delivered with a softer edge, this sounds a lot like the Buchananite rhetoric that caused immense harm to the GOP's national image in the 1990s.
It seems more than possible that Tom Tancredo is headed into the same political trap. "You can get an awful lot of mileage from demagoguing this issue, because it gets you on TV a lot," says Cecilia Muñoz of the liberal Hispanic group National Council of La Raza. "It may be good for short-term political gain, but, in the long term, it's likely to be a disaster for the Republican Party. It's pretty hard to woo the Latino community if you're taking an anti-immigrant posture--especially an ugly one."
Not that Democrats mind. As the GOP fights itself, Democrats are staking out both the left and right flanks. Ted Kennedy is drafting his own guest-worker bill, even as Hillary Clinton stuns conservatives by declaring her "adamant" opposition to illegal immigration.
None of this seems to trouble Tancredo, who has plans to visit the 2008 primary battlegrounds of Iowa and South Carolina in the weeks ahead with a posse of reporters in tow. "I'd like to get a national debate on this," he says. But such a debate comes with personal as well as political risks. During his interview with me, Tancredo's press aide, Carlos Espinosa (yes, a Latino--"he makes me look tame as hell on this issue," Tancredo cracks) interrupts. He says the Capitol Police are ready for their meeting with Tancredo. "First show them the e-mail!" he tells Espinosa. Then he asks me to turn off my tape recorder. I can't report what he told me. Let's just say Tancredo has previously acknowledged receiving death threats from people who call him a racist and a bigot. Referring to his work in Congress, Tancredo had told me, "The only way I can survive here is to be as visible as I can possibly be." But visibility can be a mixed blessing.