Opponents of immigration reform got a reminder yesterday of their biggest liability as the House of Representatives prepares to deal with the issue after the August recess: themselves. Rep. Steve King may have gotten a stern rebuke from the Republican leadership of the House after his rant about young illegal immigrants being drug smugglers (with “calves the size of canteloupes”) and not hard-working students, but he is undeterred and enjoying the celebrity that comes from being willing to say outrageous things that smarter politicians would avoid because they undermine his case. That’s what led NBC to draft King to be the voice of opposition to current proposals for immigration reform on Meet the Press yesterday.
While I don’t agree with those who believe the bill passed by the Senate won’t help fix border security or that it will worsen the country’s economic problems, you can’t help but sympathize with the people who have put forward reasonable arguments on the issue who find themselves playing second fiddle to a loose cannon like King. If NBC wanted a serious debate about immigration, there are lots of people on that side of the issue they could have chosen who wouldn’t have turned the discussion into a food fight that only gave him another opportunity to embarrass his cause and allow opponents—including Republican supporters of immigration reform like Anna Navarro—to skewer him and by extension all those who agree with him. You can put that choice down to media bias, but this is one that conservatives who have thrown in with King, and others in the grass roots who have embraced his position as well as those who put forward “cultural concerns” about immigration, have brought on themselves. While William Kristol and Rich Lowry wrote last month that the current discussion about immigration had avoided the prejudicial tone about Hispanics that had characterized much of the arguments against reform articulated in 2006 and 2007, King is ensuring that they are being proved wrong on that point. And in doing so, he is both discrediting the opposition to reform and raising the stakes for Republicans who think they have nothing to lose by ensuring that Congress won’t pass any bill this year.
It is true that King is something of an outlier even among Tea Partiers, but the problem here is not so much that he is willing to say foolish things and try to debate the issue of where young illegals are more likely to be drug smugglers than valedictorians. It is that he is giving voice to a groundswell of anti-immigrant hysteria that has always bubbled on the margins of the public square. The more the mainstream media treats him as the spokesman for opposition to any bill that would seek to deal rationally with the dilemma 11 million illegals pose to the country, the more the debate on the issue gets diverted from rational discourse.
By not bringing any immigration bill to the floor before the recess, Speaker Boehner has taken some of the steam out of the antis who had hoped to hijack town hall meetings with vacationing members of Congress this month. But so long as King is braying away on the networks, the issue remains a hot one. While it’s far from clear that King is helping to undermine the determination of House Republicans to thwart reform, he is giving his foes an opponent who is fast becoming the poster child for anti-Hispanic bias.
Though conservatives may not like the Senate bill and have qualms about the variations on it that are being put forward in separate bills rather than one big one in the House, King’s freak show is reminding them that the costs of being seen to enable his veto of reform exposes them to the sort of scrutiny that won’t help in 2014 even in most solidly Republican House districts. The best thing King can do for his cause is to shut up. But since there is little chance of that happening, pro-immigration forces can only hope he keeps talking.