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GOP Candidates’ Obsession with Immigration: “Destructive, Distracting, Demented, and Downright Dumb”

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michael medvedWriting at the Daily Beast, Michael Medved, the talk show host and self-described “Conservative Champion,” has a message for the GOP presidential candidates: stop obsessing about immigration:

With Rick Perry suddenly pushing a flat tax and Herman Cain substantively revising his popular 9-9-9 revenue plan, GOP candidates may finally relinquish their feverish immigration obsession—one that’s destructive, distracting, demented, and downright dumb.

Why spend a wildly disproportionate amount of energy exploring an issue that few voters consider a top priority, and where all Republican candidates fundamentally agree, rather than emphasizing real differences on the economic problems that will decide the election?

Listening to the toxic trash talk at the Las Vegas debate, or watching attack ads that are already polluting the Internet, one might assume that the public viewed illegal immigration as the greatest challenge facing our civilization and believed the fate of the republic hinged on Mitt Romney’s past reliance on a lawn-service company that hired undocumented workers.

That’s true. The GOP candidates have been focused on immigration — and immigrant-bashing. It’s been a real race to the bottom.

Medved is no immigration rights advocate. But, he is right that adopting a hardline approach is not a winning strategy, as we saw in 2008:

But Republican presidential candidates still talk as if immigration hardliners will decide crucial primary battles—ignoring the fact that they never have. As a rallying cry for conservatives, the get-tough-on-illegals mantra flopped miserably in 2008 in both the general election and GOP primaries. Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo made angry resistance to unauthorized immigrants the centerpiece of his presidential campaign (“If you want to call me a single-issue candidate, that’s fine,” he told the Conservative Political Action Committee) but gained no traction anywhere and dropped out before the Iowa caucuses. His colleague Rep. Duncan Hunter of California also stressed immigration concerns and drew only 1 percent in Iowa.

Meanwhile, the underfunded and overage John McCain, a notorious moderate on immigration who had previously supported a path to legalization for the undocumented, won 31 primaries or caucuses, prevailing decisively even in immigration-sensitive states on the Mexican border such as California, New Mexico, Texas, and his home base of Arizona.

Why would ranting against illegals work any better for presidential candidates in 2012 than in 2008, when all available public-opinion surveys show that concern over the issue has receded, not intensified?

Romney in particular should have learned from his own baleful experience, as he wasted millions in Iowa last time trying to clobber his rival Mike Huckabee as “soft” on illegal immigration. He attacked the former Arkansas governor in commercials and televised debates for once supporting a proposal, ultimately defeated in the legislature, for in-state tuition breaks for children who had been brought to the country without authorization. Though he outspent his opponent by a ratio of 10 to 1, the former Massachusetts governor lost badly in Iowa, 34 percent to 25 percent. It makes no sense at all for Romney, a vastly improved candidate in most other respects, to use the same feeble issue as a club against Perry, who’s doing a fine job clubbing himself with his endless series of verbal gaffes. Even on an ideological basis, the whole question of in-state tuition is unequivocally a state issue and not a federal matter for any prospective president to decide.

Given the latest revelations that Romney’s health care law provided care to undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts, it’s unlikely any of the candidates will heed Medved’s advice. It’s only going to get worse.