WHO WOULD HAVE guessed two years ago that as the 2008 Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary hove into view, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani would be leading an effort to turn the 21st-century GOP into a party of anti-immigration Know-Nothings?
Attacking illegal immigration never used to be a priority for either man. Romney ignored the issue when he ran for the Senate in 1994 and for governor of Massachusetts in 2002. In a Boston Globe interview in 2005, he noted that illegal immigrants "contribute in many cases to our economy and to our society." As recently as last year he favored a sensible path to legalization for most undocumented immigrants in the United States.
"I don't believe in rounding up 11 million people and forcing them at gunpoint from our country," Romney told the Lowell Sun in March 2006. "With these 11 million people, let's have them registered, know who they are . . . Those who are here paying taxes and not taking government benefits should begin a process toward application for citizenship."
As for Giuliani, not only was he never an anti-immigrant crusader, but as mayor of New York he had ardently defended his city's policy of sheltering illegal immigrants. "There are times when undocumented immigrants must have a substantial degree of protection," he told more than one audience. He emphasized the "courage and ambition" it takes "to leave your native country and start a new life in a new land." He went so far as to say, in 1994: "If you come here and you work hard and you happen to be in an undocumented status, you're one of the people who we want in this city."
Like Romney, Giuliani supported comprehensive immigration reform, and opposed the "punitive approach," as recently as 2006. "Give people a way to earn citizenship," he urged. "Recognize the economic forces that . . . require people to come into the United States." A sensible policy on illegals, he argued, would "separate the ones that are here for benign or neutral purposes" and focus instead on those who "come here to carry out terrorist acts or to sell drugs or to commit crimes." By all means intensify security at the border, Giuliani said, "but don't try to legislate against the inevitable forces of social movement and the economy, because it isn't going to work."
Today those enlightened views are forgotten as two of the Republican Party's most accomplished and intelligent leaders bash each other for not hating illegal immigrants enough.
"Mayor Giuliani Refused To Do His Part To Stem The Tide Of Illegal Immigration," snarls a Romney press release.
"On Governor Romney's watch, the number of illegal immigrants in Massachusetts skyrocketed," Giuliani's campaign spits back.
Romney on Giuliani: "He welcomed illegal aliens to the city. That sanctuary state of mind is one of the reasons we have so many illegal immigrants in our country today."
Giuliani on Romney: "He recommended millions of dollars in state aid to numerous sanctuary cities and to companies employing illegal immigrants - not to mention the illegals working on his own lawn."
Ugh. Of course, the former governor and former mayor aren't the first politicians to pander to anti-immigrant hostility in seeking political power. Unlike the nativist Know-Nothings of old, Romney and Giuliani are careful to exclude legal immigrants from their censure. But when 99 percent of everything they now say on immigration is negative, plenty of voters are apt to miss that distinction.
The Know-Nothings today are spoken of with disdain, but their attractiveness to voters was once a powerful political phenomenon. One of Romney's predecessors as governor of Massachusetts, Henry J. Gardner, was elected three times on the American Party (the "Know-Nothing") ticket. He had plenty of company: In the 1854 election in Massachusetts alone, the Know-Nothings won every statewide office, every seat in the state Senate, virtually the entire state House of Representatives, every seat in the congressional delegation, and a slew of local offices.
It wasn't a party of single-issue yahoos. The Know-Nothings opposed slavery, supported greater rights for women, expanded constitutional liberties, mandated paid legal counsel for poor defendants, increased aid to public schools and libraries, enacted numerous consumer protections, and cracked down on corruption in public office.
But who recalls any of that today? The Know-Nothings are remembered now for one thing only: the anti-immigrant bigotry they inflamed and exploited for political gain.
Giuliani and Romney are not single-issue yahoos either. But they are letting their hunger for power overwhelm their better judgment and decency. Recklessly bashing illegal immigrants may score them points with one angry segment in the GOP base. But what are they doing to their party's reputation - and their own?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
-- ## --
Follow Jeff Jacoby on X (aka Twitter).
Want to read more? Sign up for "Arguable," Jeff Jacoby's free weekly email newsletter.