Well, if you read the polling and the conventional wisdom, it's clear that Mitt Romney has just about sewn up the Iowa caucuses on the GOP side of the aisle. After Romney, apparently, because of the way John McCain and Rudy Giuliani have sunken from sight, it's wide open to the remaining field, including a number of second-tier candidates.
I wondered awhile back if Rep. Tom Tancredo, the most successful and prominent nativist since Millard Fillmore, might be the one to emerge from the pack and claim the "dark horse" role in the GOP race coming out of Iowa. Judging from the reportage by Mark Barabak in the Los Angeles Times this weekend, it seems as though he is indeed building momentum there:
- A three-day Iowa swing, after the Senate bill's collapse last week, was a triumphal lap of sorts. But it was also a test: Would victory stoke the forces that helped kill the legislation? Or, Tancredo wondered, would followers say, "Geez, we've won the day. Let's go home now."
He needn't have worried. The people who burned up talk radio and filled the Internet with their fury, who blitzed the White House with their faxes and e-mails, who crashed the Senate switchboard with their indignant phone calls are still spitting mad.
"People want something done," said Al Manning, 50, the owner of a sandwich shop in Waterloo who drove more than 250 miles to hear the congressman speak twice over the weekend. "We need to stop the inflow of illegals, and we need to deal with the ones that are already in the country."
Those sentiments were echoed in numerous interviews at Tancredo campaign stops and a Des Moines presidential forum that drew hundreds of conservative activists. (Of the six candidates who spoke, Tancredo received the best reception, coming and going to standing ovations.)
This kind of reception is eerily reminiscent of Barry Goldwater's early campaigning in 1960 on behalf of the then-nascent conservative movement. As Rick Perlstein explained in his book Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, these early appearances ignited an eventual brushfire that led to his actual nomination four years later.
Goldwater sparked audiences in large part because he was skilled at delivering the idea that complex problems could be answered with neat and simple solutions -- a gift that Ronald Reagan later perfected. Likewise with Tancredo:
- Some look at the immigration issue and see a complicated and confounding tangle of interests and emotions. Not Tancredo.
"I have a solution," he told a Friday night crowd of about 100 at the Quality Inn in downtown Des Moines. "It's a radical one. Scary. Enormously controversial." Then he paused and spaced his words for effect. "It's called: Enforce ... the ... law."
Of course, these neat and simple solutions have the toxic problem of neatly and simply overlooking hard realities; Tancredo's notion that we can simply induce 12 million people to "go back" by drying up their ability to make money ignores several hard facts, notably:
-- The effort to "enforce the law" as it stands is certain to result in a broad range of atrocities, of which creating concentration camps for the detainees is only one. Even more important is that the effort will break families apart; we know it will do this because it's already happening now.
-- The economic effect of removing 12 million people from a workforce in which the unemployment rate is already only 4 percent, and dropping, is incalculable. But rest assured that if Tancredo were to have his way, there would be many more jobs lost by white people than would be gained.
Not that this -- or any amount of facts, logic, and reason -- is likely to persuade either Tancredo or the angry whites who are lining up to vote for him in rural places like Iowa. As I've previously noted, many of these rural areas are the same lily-white regions that deliberately drove out their black populations a century ago, and they've become accustomed to having all-white towns.
So rather predictably, a lot of Tancredo's support comes from people who obviously are concerned foremost with defending white privilege:
- Iowa, which hosts the first contest of the 2008 presidential campaign, seems an unlikely source of agitation over illegal immigration. Latinos make up about 4% of the population. But that represents a significant increase: Since 1990, Iowa's Latino population has more than tripled.
Many Latino immigrants — legal and illegal — work in the meatpacking plants, transforming parts of rural Iowa into communities that could pass for neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Orange County or Phoenix.
"All over Iowa you see pockets of these changes and that makes people nervous," said Steve Grubbs, a GOP pollster and former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party.
Or as Goldford put it, "People say, 'I grew up in this town. Why do I see Spanish signs everywhere?' "
Crime and drug abuse are nothing new in rural Iowa. But the problem has become worse in some places, and that has fueled the immigration debate.
"I knew when they started coming here we were in for trouble," Diane Watson of Altoona said of the growing Latino population. She left California more than 30 years ago after seeing "what happens when they move in five and six families in one home."
A vote for Tancredo is one way for Watson to register her upset. He won her over with his tough-but-amiable talk at the Quality Inn. "I think he's an honest man," she said. "He wants to protect our country."
But Watson, 63, her pink sleeves pushed up to show an armful of charm bracelets, is ready to do more.
Toss a "big net" over any illegal immigrants you find, she said, and "shoot, I'll drive a busload of them back ... I mean, they're criminals."
Tancredo can talk out his ass all he likes about how he can just induce illegal immigrants to return of their own accord. His followers know the score: in the end, it's going to come down to making them "go back" forcibly. It's all very simple to them too: These people are criminals, though of course none of them would describe anyone who committed any other civil violation -- say, getting a speeding ticket -- that way. But the name of this game is demonization, after all.
Hell of a way to run for president. But if Millard Fillmore could do it, why not Tom Tancredo?