Fineman: Immigration, Ethics, and Islam

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If we had any sense, the fall elections would be about just one thing: the economy. But we do not have any sense. We are facing what Wall Street would call the "triple witching hour." Republicans have their finger on three social-demographic hot buttons. The first is illegal immigration (in proposing a review of the 14th Amendment), and the second is Islam in America (in objecting to the mosque at ground zero). They won't be able to avoid pushing the third, race, even if they wanted to, given that the two leading congressional Democrats facing ethics charges are African-American. The Democrats, in response, label the GOP xenophobic and intolerant—and those are the nice words. If Barack Obama's inauguration—could it have been only 19 months ago?—was a moment of proud, blessed calm, we are now looking at a nasty, community-shredding season of fear.

Given where Republicans—and come November, maybe the country—are headed, I wanted to interview a well-known Republican of color. Rep. John Boehner was out of town, so I called former representative J. C. Watts of Oklahoma. He'd risen from rural poverty to the starring role on the Sooners football team and served in Congress from 1995 to 2003. He supported Sen. John McCain, but he was a proud witness at Obama's swearing in. Unlike me, he had no illusions about what it meant. "I'd lived too much history, and had seen too much discrimination, to see that day as a new world," he says. Events have validated his skepticism. "We have a political and media culture, based in Washington, in which no one wants to study things—peel the onion—before they speak. Instead, they just play to the base to get them worked up. That's what's happening on all these issues."

The foremost example is immigration. No longer content merely to advocate for the arrest and deportation of "illegals" (see: Arizona), conservative cooks in the constitutional meth lab have concocted a much stronger intoxicant: rewriting the 14th Amendment to get rid of "birthright" citizenship (never mind that enacting the 14th Amendment during Reconstruction is something the GOP brags about on its Web site). The plan feeds straight into the cortex of Tea Party constituents: amending the amendment would end a supposed wave of "anchor babies" born to mothers who fly to the U.S. like malevolent storks to inject aliens into our bloodstream.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to have hearings. He regards himself as a cautious constitutionalist, but he can't resist a red-hot hot button when he sees one, especially if it might help protect the Senate candidate in his home state of Kentucky, Tea Partier Rand Paul. Republicans focus on Chinese anchor-baby cases, but the larger message isn't lost on tens of millions of Hispanic voters. So whatever gains this issue helps the GOP make today—and they might not be insignificant—could cost the party tomorrow, Watts says. "I was just with some Republican Hispanic leaders—in many ways, the future of our party—and they told me they were heartbroken. They think we're taking the legs right out from under them."

Fears of "the other"—not to mention media concentration in New York City—provide staying power to the GOP's focus on the Islamic community center planned for a site near ground zero. Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich continue to push the issue; most Democrats continue to avoid it. And while Republicans are careful to avoid any hint of racial language about the ethics cases, the GOP machinery churns out compendiums of coverage of Reps. Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters, whose congressional trials, inconveniently for the Democrats, are scheduled for this fall. Rush Limbaugh taunts Rangel by noting that the president has wished aloud that the congressman would retire. Limbaugh also said that "Maxine Waters is just Charlie Rangel in a skirt," meaning…well, who knows, but it wasn't supposed to be nice.

Will all of this work for the Republicans? In spite of the sound and fury—or, perhaps, because of it—maybe not. With the economy sliding into a potential double-dip recession, the GOP would be better off focusing on the administration's economic track record, or lack thereof. Republicans also risk backing themselves into a demographic corner. They can't afford to be the party of white people who fear everyone else (nor can the Democrats be the party who calls everyone who disagrees with it racist). "We've all got to take our time and think clearly before we speak on these matters," says Watts. Now that would make sense.

Howard Fineman is also the author of The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country.