It’s a good bet history will remember this presidential election as one in which a candidate, faced with polls that showed the contest was too close to call, shamelessly pandered to one of his party’s constituencies to boost their turnout and his chances of victory.
History will recall that, in a widely covered speech, this guy sounded as though he had less concern for the law of the land than the arch of his political ambition. And it will conclude that in the wake of that grossly political moment, he showed no contrition for his hurtful act.
It’s also probably a good bet you don’t realize I’m talking about Ronald Reagan — not Barack Obama.
Though his Republican critics claim that President Obama’s decision to stop the deportation of young people — most of them Hispanics — who entered this country illegally as children was a crassly political action, what Obama did last week doesn’t compare with Reagan’s action in 1980.
In a White House Rose Garden speech Friday, Obama used his executive authority to order an immediate stop to efforts to return these young people to countries many of them left before they even learned to speak. Instead, they will get a temporary reprieve until Congress enacts a badly needed immigration reform law.
“It seems the president has put election-year politics above responsible policies,” Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement released by his office.
But while the president’s action is clearly intended to court Hispanics, whose votes in the battleground states of Florida, Nevada, Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina could tilt the election to Obama, it was as much an act of compassion as politics.
The same can’t be said for what Reagan did. Shortly after the 1980 GOP convention, Reagan went to Philadelphia, Miss., scene of one of the civil rights era’s most brutal crimes, to launch his campaign to unseat President Carter. In his speech, Reagan told his audience, “I believe in states’ rights,” which, then and now, are buzzwords for those who want to undo the civil rights gains blacks made in the 1960s.
In 1968, Republican Richard Nixon used a race-baiting “Southern strategy” of appeasement of Southern racists to help him win the presidency. It also turned the party of Abraham Lincoln into the party of Strom Thurmond. But in 1976, Carter reversed that gain when he won every state of the old Confederacy except Virginia and put the White House back in the Democratic Party column.
What Reagan did in 1980 to defeat Carter far exceeds what Obama has done to court Hispanic voters in a race with Republican Mitt Romney that many analysts say is too close to call.
Obama’s suspension of the deportation of children brought into this country illegally is as much a humanitarian act as a political gesture. It doesn’t sit well with right-wingers, I suspect, because they are more concerned with who is allowed to migrate into this country than with whether they got here legally.
They want to slow the arrival of the day, projected to be around 2050, when minorities in the U.S. will outnumber non-Hispanic whites. This is what they mean when they say, “I want my country back.”
This is the view of America that Reagan emboldened with his states’ rights speech.
And it is the antithesis of the message of inclusion that Obama sent when he announced a decision that’s not only, for him, good politics — but also is good public policy in this nation of immigrants.