Cain’s ‘joke’ crosses line

Pizza mogul Herman Cain has had a good few weeks. He’s vacuuming up Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s former supporters, rising in the polls and turning the GOP nominating contest on its heels. It’s a testament to the pathetic GOP field that someone as quixotic as Cain has risen this far.

But as Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannBachmann won't run for Franken's Senate seat because she did not hear a 'call from God' Billboard from ‘God’ tells Michele Bachmann not to run for Senate Pawlenty opts out of Senate run in Minnesota MORE and Perry found out, being the front-runner is no picnic. People suddenly pay attention to what you say. And it hasn’t taken long for the front-running Cain to hit his first pothole. 

“We’ll have a real fence, 20 feet high with barbed wire, electrified, with a sign on the other side that says, ‘It can kill you,’ ” Cain said at a campaign stop in Tennessee, to rowdy applause. And if someone thought that was insensitive, he had an answer: “What is insensitive is when they come to the United States across our border and kill our citizens and kill our Border Patrol people.”

Don’t ask Cain for an accounting of all those mass-murdering landscapers, busboys, nannies and crop pickers, because they don’t exist. Just as Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainHow House Republicans scrambled the Russia probe The Hill's 12:30 Report The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by CVS Health - A pivotal day for House Republicans on immigration MORE (R-Ariz.) and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) invented stories of beheadings in the border desert during recent campaigns, so too is Cain playing on voters’ fears with mythology. 

Yet the comment about killing immigrants raised some eyebrows, and Cain had to clarify that he was “joking” (even if Cain’s audience was cheering, not laughing).

When people didn’t laugh at a “joke” about killing people, Republicans either rushed to Cain’s defense by accusing liberals of being “humorless,” or remained silent. That is, except for the nation’s largest organization of misguided Latinos, Somos Republicanos. But their voice was so lonely, so ignored, so irrelevant, that its Texas chapter director, Lauro Antonio Garza, an arch-conservative, lifelong Republican, quit the party. 

“Today, we find the Republican Party has strayed from its roots and its founding principals [sic] so far that they can no longer be seen,” he wrote, announcing his departure from the GOP. “We saw this yesterday, in the glare of broad daylight, when a leading presidential candidate, Herman Cain, not once, but twice, advocated for the murder of innocent people and that was met with cheers! Somos Republicans, America’s largest organization of conservative Hispanics, was alone in its criticism of this loud mouth hateful bigot … The fact the GOP allows and applauds such outrageous thoughts is beyond reprehensible.”

Republicans are facing a bit of a quandary. Theirs is a party whose electoral success has been heavily dependent on dividing Americans to attract the votes of so-called low-information voters. But as Rick Perry learned during the “N----rhead” affair, and as George Allen and Trent Lott showed us in recent years, overt racism no longer pays dividends. It’s the reason Haley Barbour isn’t running for president right now. Similarly, gay-bashing is no longer as risk-free as it used to be, as Bachmann and her husband, Marcus, recently discovered. 

Maybe Cain thinks bashing Latino immigrants is an easy way to engage in old-fashioned Republican divide-and-conquer politics while escaping the public condemnation that greeted Allen and Lott. But even if it’s more socially acceptable today to beat up on Latinos, it won’t be tomorrow.

Latinos are the largest-growing demographic in the nation. That bodes poorly for the GOP, and not just in the long term — Obama needs even fewer white votes in 2012 than he did in 2008, and that trend isn’t reversing.

Moulitsas is the publisher and founder of Daily Kos (