Can Democrats seize the opportunity the immigration debate offers them?

Yesterday the flailing Mitt Romney launched a new ad against Mike Huckabee for being soft on immigrants. Huckabee responds with an ad, consistent with his new nutty immigration "plan," showing how tough he is. In the special election in OH-5 that concludes today three sets of GOP ads - by the candidate, by the NRCC and now by Freedom's Watch - all focus on immigrants. Last week Tom Tancredo, still at 1 percent in the Republican race for President, launched a new and extraordinary ad that ends with these words "Deport those who don't belong. Make sure they never come back." For the GOP it has become all immigration all the time.

Two new polls help explain what is going on. A new NYTimes poll shows how much the nation has grown disenchanted with the age of Bush, and how disenchanted GOP voters have become with their own party. Our recent Republican era has left the nation weaker and the American people less safe, less prosperous, and less free. Their economic and security policies have failed to deliver. Their ratings are the lowest in a generation. They face an epidemic of retirements. Their Presidential field is the least impressive of modern times. They trail the Democrats in fundraising by hundreds of millions of dollars. Right of center politics in the US is in the midst of a sustained, deep political and ideological collapse. The party of Lincoln and Reagan has become the party of Tancredo and Dobbs.

The 2nd poll is a new LA Times poll that shows 60 percent national support for an earned path to citizenship for the 11-12 million undocumented immigrants in the country. Remarkably, this poll shows 62% support for this earned path with Republican voters. And this poll, like almost every other poll taken in the last few years shows immigration to the be the top issue with just 15 percent of all voters (see this new memo from the National Immigration Forum summarizing dozens of public polls on immigration).

In the Ohio special, and in the GOP Presidential Primary, the ads are not speaking to a general election audience but are trying mightily to get the attention of a very despondent GOP base. They are using extreme and hate-filled messages to break through, and have now adopted scapegoating immigrants as a grand national strategy. And there is simply no evidence at this point that it is working. In the MA Tsongas special recently the Republican candidate lost. In the 2007 elections in VA and NY the GOP investment in immigration did not pay off, and the Dems won key elections in both states. It also did not deliver for them in 2006 in hard fought races across the country. At the Presidential level Romney who has invested the most in the immigration issue is plummeting in Iowa. Tancredo who has bet his whole campaign on the issue is at 1 percent. 1 percent!

Democrats should be viewing this ongoing GOP obsession with immigration not as something to fear but as a powerful sign of the collapse of the modern Republican Party. In 2008 the GOP cannot run on its governing accomplishments. Cannot run on its health care plan. Cannot run on its vision for our security. Cannot run on its strategy to help a struggling middle class. Cannot run on their high moral and ethical standards. Cannot run on fiscal responsibility. So what is left? An issue that nostalgically evokes the racism of their now anachronistic Southern Strategy, that doesn't even have majority support in their own Party, is reinforcing that their Party has become more interested in scoring political points than solving vexing national problems and that is managing to anger the fastest growing part of the American electorate, Hispanics.

Smart Republicans have been sounding the alarms. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Former Bush speech writer Michael Gerson wrote:

The political effects of conservative opposition to immigration reform have been swift as well. Latino support for GOP candidates dropped back to 30 percent in 2006. According to one poll, Latinos under age 30 now prefer a generic Democrat over a Republican for president by 42 points. A harsh, Tancredo-like image of Republicans has solidified in the mainstream Hispanic media. And all of this regression will be even more obvious in the next few months, because more than half of the Hispanic voters in America live in states that are part of the new lineup of early primaries.

I have never seen an issue where the short-term interests of Republican presidential candidates in the primaries were more starkly at odds with the long-term interests of the party itself. At least five swing states that Bush carried in 2004 are rich in Hispanic voters -- Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and Florida. Bush won Nevada by just over 20,000 votes. A substantial shift of Hispanic voters toward the Democrats in these states could make the national political map unwinnable for Republicans.

There is a moral hazard as well. Surfing on a wave of voter resentment is easier than rowing on the calmer waters of inclusion and charity. But the heroes of America are generally heroes of reconciliation, not division.

In politics, some acts are so emblematic and potent that they cannot be undone for decades -- as when Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Goldwater was no racist; his constitutional objections were sincere. Members of the Republican Party actually voted for the Civil Rights Act in higher percentages than Democrats. But all of this was overwhelmed by the symbolism of the moment. In his autobiography, Colin Powell says that after the Goldwater vote, he went to his car and affixed a Lyndon Johnson bumper sticker, as did many other African Americans. Now Republicans seem to be repeating history with Hispanic Americans. Some in the party seem pleased. They should be terrified.

And in a great new article in the New Yorker, Return of the Nativist, Ryan Lizza reports on this conversation he had with Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, who has been a stalwart champion of immigration reform and is a backer of John McCain:

Graham read me one of the questions that his pollster asked about immigration. The poll tested voters’ opinion of three different proposals to deal with illegal immigrants: “arrest and deport”; “allow them to be temporary workers, as long as they have a job”; “fine them and allow them to become citizens only if they learn English and get to the back of the line.” In two separate polls, the majority supported the third option. The average for the first option was only twenty-six per cent.

“What it tells me is that the emotion of the twenty-six per cent is real, somewhat understandable, but if not contained could destroy our ability to grow the Party,” he said. “And I don’t think you need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that if you’re going to win a general election you have to do well with Hispanic voters as a Republican.” He continued, “My concern is that we’re going to have an honest but overly emotional debate about immigration, and we’ll say things for the moment, in the primary chase, that will make it very difficult for us to win in November. There’s a fine line between being upset about violating the law and appearing to be upset about someone’s last name.”

Graham, who is one of McCain’s staunchest supporters, had not yet seen a new poll by the Pew Hispanic Center, which reported that the gains made among Hispanic voters during the Bush era have now been erased. Nevertheless, he had a warning for Republicans: “Those politicians that are able to craft a message tailored to the moment but understanding of the long-term consequences to the country and to the Party are the ones that are a blessing. And the ones who live for the moment and don’t think about long-term consequences, demographic changes, over time have proven to have been more of a liability than an asset.” He added, “Be careful of chasing the rabbit down a hole here.”

It is simply astonishing that Democrats have not fully grasped the enormity of the opportunity immigration reform presents. Embracing comprehensive immigration reform will allow to draw a bright line distinction with the GOP on an issue where the Democratic position has majority support of the American people; has the support of a deep and broad national coalition that includes prominent religious leaders, labor, business and immigrant rights groups, elected leaders like George Bush, John McCain, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and passed a GOP-controlled Senate with 62 votes; shows they can take on the tough ones, and work to solve vexing national problems; drives a deep wedge in the GOP coalition; and makes a major overture to Hispanics, who are the key to a permanent 21st century progressive governing coalition.

For Democrats embracing comprehensive immigration reform is the right thing to do morally, legislatively and politically. Me-tooing the GOP on this one, as some Democrats have suggested, will deny the Democrats an opportunity to put the Republicans away for a very long time and commit them to a position simply inconsistent with their Party's core values. On this issue the right thing to do is not to duck - but to stand and fight.

Immigration should properly be seen by Democrats as one their greatest political and governing opportunities of this political era, and a true test of whether they have what it takes to lead the emerging America of the 21st century. The Republicans are failing their test. For the good of the country I hope the Democrats pass theirs.

Update: Several of you have rightly pointed out that there are many Democrats who do see this opportunity - they include all the Democratic Presidential candidates, almost all of the Democrats in the Senate and many Democrats in the House. Led by Harry Reid and Ted Kennedy, the Senate Democrats have worked hard these last two years to fix our broken immigration system. They passed a good bill through the Senate in 2006 and waged an intense and spirited campaign to get it done in 2007 but at the end were betrayed by a Republican Party that promised to be there and simply didn't deliver the votes.