The Monthly Interview

Just as conservative strategist Grover Norquist admires Vladimir Lenin, hard-core progressives might learn a thing or two from Tom Tancredo. The Colorado congressman and long-shot presidential candidate has for years been pushing for a restrictionist policy on immigration. His efforts have finally paid off. In 2006, the GOP House embraced a hard-line stance on border control as its strategy for winning the midterm elections. This year, presidential candidates are finding that immigration has become a litmus-test issue in the Republican primaries. Admittedly, Tancredo’s triumph is not necessarily good for the GOPthe party’s antics in Congress in 2006 undid years of effort by Karl Rove to welcome Hispanics into the Republican foldbut it nevertheless stands as a case study in how an extremist position can reshape an entire party’s political debate. Tancredo recently explained to the Washington Monthly‘s Markos Kounalakis and Peter Laufer how it’s done.

TT: Well, I am perhaps the most visible member of Congressand certainly now the most visible person running for president of the United Stateson the issue of immigration. What happens is, you provide people with some space to get into where they can say, “That guy is a racist xenophobe. That guy is just so crazy that we can take a more moderate stance.” To tell you the truth, that’s okay with me. It is not the worst thing in the world to have changed the debate so significantly, at least among Republicans running for office, that they are willing to say things like “We will secure the border” and “We will go after employers.” That’s the moderate position now.

TT: The last attempt that the administration put all its hope in, a Senate bill a couple of months ago, the president said to everyone, “This is what’s going to pass, I’ll see you at the signing ceremony.” That’s what he said. And the leadership of the House and Senate were all agreeing to it. But something happened that I haven’t seen since I’ve been in Congress. The phones at the Senate offices were shut down because of overload. On Tuesday, we had only thirty-six senators on our side, and on Thursday, we had fifty-three. Every single vote that changed was a senator running for reelection in 2008. Thank God for talk radio and the Internet!

TT: I don’t want it to sound trite, but I do not for the life of me understand why we could not accomplish exactly what you said by simply saying, “We will enforce the law.” We call ourselves a nation of law, we believe that is one of the founding principles of the country. We have a law that says you can’t come into the country illegally; we have another law that says you cannot obtain a job if you are here illegally. If you enforce those laws, then from my point of view you have solved the problem. Why isn’t that a compromise?

TT: Well, that’s made my day, hearing that! Of course, I understand the world in which I operate. I have a friend from when I was in the state legislature many years ago who had once worked for a union. And he said that you would go in and scream for red revolution and settle for an increase in the pension plan. To a large extent, that is what is happening. I have to set the bar as high as I can. I’m being completely candid with you. If I had actually set out to become president, then of course it would be ludicrous for me to do it in the way I’m doing it. I don’t have that as my goal; I never have. The only way I can get on that plane and go to Iowa or New Hampshire and spend night after night in hotels in places you’ve never even heard of is by saying, “Think about why you’re doing this, Tom. It is because the issue is important. You are the person that is advancing it.” I have the luxury of saying, “I will set the goalposts as far as I can down the field because then I will have a better chance of getting the game played on my side.” In one recent debate, we spent the first thirty-five minutes on immigration. That has never happened before. It’s wonderfulI’ve got the two top guys attacking each other. Romney can spend a great deal of money, and he is enormously articulate, and the fact that he will take on Giuliani on this issueI have to tell you, I don’t get many questions, I stand there like a bookend for most of the debates, but it’s still enormously gratifying.

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