Immigration —the big fizzle

The irony is superb. In an election cycle that has seen many Republicans pin their fading hopes on a last-ditch effort to demonize immigrants, their party appears well on its way to nominating the candidate least hostile to immigration.

By the time you read this, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) may or may not have effectively secured his party’s nomination; in either case, it’s clear that both establishment and rank-and-file Republicans are coalescing around his candidacy. And McCain has consolidated his grip on the nomination in the face of his conservative opponents’ desperate efforts to destroy his candidacy by scapegoating McCain’s sponsorship of the even-handed McCain-Kennedy immigration legislation — a bill he would still sign into law today if here were president, as he recently told Tim Russert.

It’s this defiant attitude toward the extremists’ hatred of immigrants that particularly galls the conservative base. It’s no longer enough to attack San Francisco, Muslims, Massachusetts, gays and African-Americans. In order to stave off electoral defeat this November, the GOP has added powerless brown people to the list. Allies in the conservative media have whipped the faithful into a frenzy.

A few Democrats like Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), spooked by the sound and fury of these anti-immigrant crusaders, have urged their party to “neutralize” the issue by veering right and supporting an enforcement-only bill. But Emanuel and his timid ilk are misreading the American mood. Polls reveal that few voters outside of a loud fringe minority will reward immigrant bashing. A CBS News poll this past week asking people to rate “the most important problem facing this country today” found a scant 4 percent of Americans selecting “immigration.“

More important than polls are actual election results — and these, too, indicate that you can’t win by beating on immigrants. Conservatives in 2006 who ran anti-immigrant campaigns lost big, as congressmen J.D. Hayworth (Ariz.) and John Hostettler (Ind.) can attest. Republican challengers who tried the immigrant-bashing route failed miserably.

Not a single national Democratic governor, senator or representative lost his or her job in 2006.

2007 was no kinder to immigrant-bashing Republican candidates. Virginia and New York Republicans based their entire off-year election strategies on supposed voter discontent with immigration — only to find it fool’s gold.

Now, many Americans agree immigration is a problem, yet most support comprehensive reform that would offer an earned path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants such as McCain-Kennedy offered. During the debate over that measure, a Los Angeles Times poll found that 63 percent of Americans supported the bill. A CBS News poll pegged support at 77 percent.

So while the public is concerned about immigration and wants a solution, the solutions preferred are practical ones, nowhere near as reactionary as those proposed by the rabid anti-immigrant zealots.

Today’s Republicans, however, have nothing better to run on. Their ideology is tired, having failed the test of governance. The public is no longer scared into submission by threats of terrorists on every corner. But since fear-mongering worked so well for the GOP for so long, party leaders clearly feel that they have nothing to lose by trying to turn hard-working immigrants into their new bogeymen.

And it’s true. They have nothing to lose … except more elections.

So as conservative leaders throw their weight behind a failed anti-immigrant strategy, Republican primary voters appear ready to nominate as their leader the sponsor of the hated immigration reform bill. We couldn’t ask for clearer evidence that the issue had never been more than a paper tiger all along.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos .