Saturday, December 22, 2007

Tancredo TKO

For months now, pundits and pol-watchers have been quietly marveling at the resilience of the presidential campaign of Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, the Republican congressman whose one-issue platform – ending illegal immigration – seemed to defy political gravity and the laws of politics that dictate the need for candidates to address a wide range of issues.

Like the audience at a professional prize fight, the press and observers asked themselves the same question you’d ask watching a fighter getting his brains beaten out round after round, a man who manages to stay on his feet even as the blood streams into the eyes he needs to see: “What the hell’s holding him up?”

We don’t have to ask that question anymore. Tancredo more or less quietly ended his quest for the presidency on Thursday, his 62nd birthday, narrowing the still-crowded GOP field by one (depending on whether you count the phantom campaign of Alan Keyes, a political nonentity this season if there ever was one).

Tancredo’s quit statement is a leitmotiv of the campaigner making an early exit: We made the points we had to make, we elevated the issue of [insert issue here] to a level of importance that the other candidates ignored … our work is done here.

Sure enough: On Tancredo’s Web site, the former candidate says that “earlier this year when I feared that the issue would not be championed by any of the top candidates I threw my hat in the ring. It was the only way I could be certain that the candidates would be forced to take a stand. … we have succeeded beyond my most optimistic expectations of a year ago.”

“We have come so far together, and through our efforts we have made a stunning and, I believe, permanent impact on the debate over securing our borders and preserving our nation.”

Tancredo, a bantamweight contender at best, might well have said “no mas, no mas” when he hung ‘em up, like Roberto Duran did, but that would have been contrary to the rabidly xenophobic spirit of his signature issue, and the weaponized passions of so many of his followers: “English only, please!”

It’s that spirit that led candidate Tancredo to actively try to bully U.S. immigration officials into deporting Jesus Apodaca, an honors student in his home state, because of Apodaca’s illegal status. The Immigration and Naturalization Service promised Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell it would not move against Apodaca (GPA 3.9!) until Congress weighed the case, the Denver Post reported in September.

There are at least three good reasons why Tancredo made an early exit beyond the self-serving statement of having completed his educational mission of raising the issue of illegal immigration to a fever pitch.

First and most obvious: Tancredo ran out of cash, the mother’s milk and gasoline of American presidential politics. Tancredo consistently underperformed against the other candidates on fundraising, and made little or no headway in the polls beyond momentary surges pegged as much to his appearances in the debates as anything else.

Second, Tancredo ran out of momentum. The singular energy he brought to the illegal-immigration debate began to dissipate. Ironically enough, Tancredo’s campaign lost power the more widely the immigration issue became the substance of the other campaigns. His lock on the topic was more diffused, and less particular to him, as other more viable candidates starting talking about it. Over time, there was increasingly less of a reason for Tancredo’s being on the campaign trail at all.

Last, Tancredo’s Republican colleagues ran out of patience. There’s no escaping the polarizing high negatives his campaign has generated among Americans across the board. Now factor in the damage Tancredo has done to the marginal efforts to rehumanize the Republican Party for millions of Latino voters predisposed to vote against the GOP [See "For Latinos, the gusano turns"]. Something that was already an uphill GOP battle before Tancredo’s insurgent campaign even started became an effort Sisyphus would have looked forward to. Tancredo was beginning to do more damage to the Republicans than the Democrats. (Maybe this was quietly communicated to the candidate by the party leadership. Ya think?)

Tancredo’s vitriolic proposals -- building a wall on the southern U.S. border, deporting all illegal residents at an estimated cost of $200 billion -- deepened a rift between the Republicans and the Latino bloc that, until recent years, could be counted on for support in the voting booth. That was then. Today? No mas.

But even in defeat, this fighter will have people shouting his name at ringside. For all his vicious looniness, Tancredo leaves ‘em screaming.

Roberto Lovato, writing on AlterNet, understands: “Viewed from the vantage point of recent political history, Tancredo's wild and often wacky political journey has taken him from being a relatively unknown young David to become a more seasoned leader, a King David of immigration politics who will continue to exercise power far beyond the humbler days when he was a lone voice crying in the anti-immigrant wilderness of the GOP. …

“While Republican candidates in Iowa, New Hampshire and other primary states will no longer find themselves in a campaign in which they ‘try to out-Tancredo Tancredo,’ political ads and debate sound bites chock full of ‘get-tough on immigrants’ rhetoric may well prevail beyond the primaries. That Tancredo has helped turn mainstream what was formerly right-wing fringe is clear …”

Tancredo lost this bout in a TKO: While the fighter was still upright when he threw in the towel, he was battered by the exigencies of American politics, and by misinterpreting the sheer weight of the populism he’d been counting on. With Americans only giving him lip service on the immigration issue, and not advancing his fortunes either with more robust fundraising or a rise in the opinion polls over the 11 months of his campaign, Tancredo has discovered (however reluctant he is to admit it) just how narrow his base of support really was.

For his supporters, it’s back to the drawing board to find a more viable candidate who can champion the immigration issue. For his detractors, it’s an early Christmas present, one they’d no doubt accept with a parting shot: Gracias, Tomas. No permita el golpe de puerta usted en el asno en su salida.

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