Friday, May 16, 2008

Between a Roca and a Hard (Right) Place

John McCain’s Cinco de Mayo announcement he will speak at the convention of the National Council of La Raza this summer sent a certain type of Republican into paroxysms of delusional angst.

Michelle Malkin called it an attempt “to legitimize the militantly open-borders, anti-immigration enforcement, ethnic nationalists who call themselves ‘The Race.’

The popular right wing blog Little Green Footballs asked, “Why is John McCain pandering to a rabidly racist Mexican-American group with an open agenda to turn the Western states of the US into ‘Aztlan?’”

And Joseph Farah at World Net daily added that the news “is beyond disturbing. It is sickening. It is repulsive. It is inexcusable. It is … immoral and evil” because the aim of the group is to turn the Southwest over to Mexico or establish “an independent, autonomous, Spanish-speaking socialist state.”

This is hilarious stuff. Back on planet Earth, the NCLR is boring in a Kraft burritos sort of way: there’s Mexican flavor in there, but safely Americanized (its “Corporate Partners Program” reads like the Fortune 500, from Allstate to Xerox). The NCLR is nothing more than a civil rights group with a focus on Hispanics. Yes, it leans left. It advocates for affordable housing, immigration reform, lowering the Hispanic school drop out rate — quintessentially mainstream, moderate liberal causes.

Radical separatists? A disclaimer on its website could not be clearer: “Another misconception about NCLR is that we support a “Reconquista,” or the right of Mexico to reclaim land in the southwestern United States. NCLR has not made and does not make any such claim; indeed, such a claim is so far outside of the mainstream of the Latino community that we find it incredible that our critics raise it as an issue.”

But they do. Just like they are also raising alarms about McCain’s launch of a Spanish-language website.

“McCain is basically letting us know that Spanish is now irrevocably becoming our second language,” someone posted at the website of Americans for Legal Immigration. At the hysterically anti-immigrant (its head honcho, nativist but British-born Peter Brimelow, once helpfully corrected me by clarifying his site was not white supremacist but "white nationalist") one Alan Wall wrote, “A common civic language is a great advantage, one we shouldn’t toss on the junk heap so easily. English is our national language. It’s our language of public discourse.”

An eminently reasonable point. Fascinating, too, to learn that a person with what seems like a normally functioning brain has actually convinced himself, and is trying to convince others, that the United States of America is junking the English language.

Such rantings from the Republicans’ lunatic fringe has been predictable ever since immigrant-bashing became de rigueur on the right. It’s become tedious. But the bombast will attract interest again as the presidential campaign draws closer.

What John McCain heard this week is just a little sample of what the anti-immigrant right has in store for him. These are people who will not forgive him for sponsoring legislation that offered qualified illegal immigrants a path to legal residency and eventually citizenship. The worse among them will not forgive him, either, for refusing to join their hallucinations about conspiracies to turn the United States into a Spanish-speaking province of Mexico.

Most people like that will stay home given a choice between McCain and a Democrat. But they will stay home screaming, and their yelling can influence voters who are not racist but do worry about illegal immigration. McCain cannot win if they stay home too.

At the same time, McCain needs Hispanic votes. He has proven he can get them: in his 2004 race for Senate he won 75 percent of Arizona’s, the same year George W. Bush won 40 percent nationally, highest ever for a Republican presidential candidate.

McCain will find it tough to top that. “The tenor of the [immigration] debate has harmed our image among Hispanics,” he acknowledged when he announced the Spanish website and NCLR appearance.

To win he will have to court Hispanics without making border hawks stay home. Good luck with that.

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