It's not hard to see why no one inside the Beltway takes Tom Tancredo's campaign for the presidency very seriously. After all, he is a one-issue candidate -- immigration, which he euphemistically describes as "securing America's borders" -- and he's a certifiable nutcase. And it's true that he is, in the end, an unelectable extremist.
But before 2008 is out, I'm fairly confident that Tancredo will have made his mark on the race for the presidency -- as well as on the GOP and, for that matter, on the nation generally. And it won't have been for the better, except to the extent that he will divide and weaken the GOP, which is considerable.
Indeed, we should probably expect the Republican field to wind up largely looking like Dick Cheney's hunting partners.
Tancredo, as Matt at Right's Field reports, made his candidacy for the Republican nomination all but official today. At first there was speculation that Wayne Allard's impending retirement might entice him to drop his presidential aspirations and run for the Senate. Instead, he wound up encouraging a fellow Republican to seek the seat.
That's probably astute on his part, since Colorado is rapidly in the process of becoming much more blue. Tancredo probably could win back his current seat, but it's doubtful he could even win a statewide race in Colorado.
So why does he imagine he could somehow win the presidency? Well, probably because he's deluded. After all, the rabid nativist right that he represents declared the last election a referendum in their favor: Republicans lost, you see, because they didn't adhere to "true conservative values." That's why Neil Cavuto virtually endorsed Tancredo immediately after the polls closed.
But it's also because he's on a mission, and more to the point, he has a real strategy that could actually pay off, at least in the short run.
Tancredo already has a Web site up and running, and his Team America site -- which notably includes ads for Patrick Buchanan's nakedly racist book, State of Emergency -- has the following letter more or less adhering to that "conservative values" schtick:
- I am writing to you today as a friend, and as a fellow believer in the cause of securing America's borders.
My purpose is to obtain your support as I embark upon a path that may lead to the Republican nomination for the presidency of the United States.
The decision to pursue this arduous and undeniably uphill battle is because I, like you, have a duty to do everything I can to keep faith with those who risked their "lives, fortunes and sacred honor" to create this wonderful place we call America.
I am considering this campaign because of my commitment to real immigration reform: reform that first and foremost is dedicated to the security and well-being of the citizens of the United States, and to respect for the rule of law in our beloved nation.
I am also considering this campaign because I believe the Republican Party and its leaders must recommit themselves to limited, smaller government; fiscal responsibility; and honesty in public office.
Last November, the Republican Party paid a high price for abandoning those principles; we will not regain the trust of the voters and a congressional majority until we reclaim them. I am proud that I was one of a handful of Republican members of Congress who voted against both "No Child Left Behind," a federal betrayal of local control of education, and the fiscally irresponsible Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit.
When I was elected to Congress in 1998, I made immigration reform my top priority, much to the scorn and derision of the political and business elites who are addicted to the flow of cheap illegal labor into America.
But, as I look at the current presidential candidates, Republican and Democratic, I simply do not see one who reflects the grassroots, majority belief of Americans that our borders must be secured, that employers who hire illegals must be prosecuted, and that no one who has broken our immigration laws should ever be put on a "pathway to citizenship."
After a lot of prayer, and long talks with my wife Jackie and our children, I have decided I am willing to put myself forward as a candidate for president in order, above everything else, to advance our immigration reform agenda, and to reclaim the Republican Party for its core conservative values.
Now, it's nearly a certainty that Tancredo can't actually win the Republican nomination, since he really is being a Tommy One Note. But his campaign's appeal to the ugly nativist sentiment circulating and bubbling upward in the Republican cauldron -- particularly in rural portions of the Midwest and West, whose demographics have been rapidly changing with the influx of Latino workers in the past decade -- will probably have more traction, at least initially, than anyone inside the Beltway suspects.
That's in no small part because a number of the early campaign takes place in states like Iowa, where Republicans are fond of electing raging xenophobes like Rep. Steve King. David Yepsen at the Des Moines Register observes:
- By entering the fray, Tancredo joins a list of Republican conservatives like Pat Buchanan, Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes or Pat Robertson, who ran strong caucus races in Iowa. They lost, but they had an impact by forcing the leading candidates to speak to their issues - and by energizing new people to get involved in the process.
While Tancredo's critics dismiss him -- he's called "Tancrazy" by some and bigoted by others -- objective observers of caucus politics understand he could be a factor in the race -- if he mounts a credible effort here.
The critical aspect of this lies in whether Tancredo can make a serious appeal to the religious right, which seems to view the frontrunner, St. John McCain, as something roughly akin to an AIDS-infected leper.
And it's worth remembering that a number of leaders of the fundamentalist faction recently broke their silence on immigration and took up a position rather comfortably close to Tancredo's:
- A number of leading Christian conservative groups have formed a coalition on immigration and illegal aliens that will push religiously grounded positions that both sides of the current immigration debate will both love and hate.
In letters sent today and obtained by The Washington Times, Families First on Immigration urges President Bush and leaders of the new Democratic Congress to adopt a grand compromise on the divisive issue that includes strong border security, an amnesty for illegals already here who are relatives of citizens and an end to birthright citizenship.
Former Republican presidential hopeful Gary Bauer, Deal Hudson of the Morley Institute for Church & Culture and David Keene of the American Conservative Union are among those who have joined forces to chart a new path on immigration reform, an issue that conservative Christians have generally avoided.
"Our position really is consistent with Christian teachings and with the rule of law," said Manuel Miranda, chairman of the Third Branch Conference who has corralled more than 30 leading conservatives to enter the volatile debate.
As Pastordan notes, of course, the Christian doctrine on the "rule of law" is really rather secondary to its longtime primary edicts regarding compassion for the poor and acting to help them. But then, fundamentalists are notorious for burning down the forest in defense of a single tree.
The only real hitch in Tancredo's ability to forge a nativist/fundamentalist coalition is his longtime association with the John Tanton faction of the anti-immigrant right, which is also noteworthy for its eugenics-based support of Planned Parenthood. Somehow, I suspect that such minor transgressions will not get in the way of such an alliance if the principals decide to make it.
One can readily imagine a Republican party split between its paleoconservative faction, including the religious right, and its corporatist conservative faction, which runs the show inside the Beltway. It won't be pretty, and it's certain to boost Democratic prospects.
On the other hand, Tancredo's campaign will also give real traction to the ugly nativist impulse that is bubbling up through the conservative movement -- and that, in the end, is bad news for everyone.