When the President speaks, every word is parsed carefully across the world. Everyone wants to know what the President is thinking, and his words are among the best clues. That is true for every President, and so it is true for every presidential candidate. We assume their words are a mirror of their thoughts and beliefs, and thus pointers to what policies they will pursue.
So let’s listen to the words of Republican presidential candidates. Donald Trump said some significant words about immigrants in the announcement of his candidacy in June. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best.... They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
A week ago, Trump claimed that Hispanics are “going to love Trump.” Maybe he doesn’t realize that Mexicans are Hispanic.
Trump’s whole campaign is a media show. His campaign paid actors to cheer at his candidacy announcement. Trump won’t be our next President or even the Republican nominee. He will gradually alienate potential voters by intemperate attacks on other Republicans, like John McCain. His appeal to the angriest and least informed right-wing voters won’t be enough, although with so many candidates, he may win a primary or two.
More significant than his words are the words of the other Republican candidates. One of them will be on the ballot next November. Their words about immigrants and immigration will be taken to reflect what “America” thinks. What did they say?
One voice in strong opposition to Trump was Marco Rubio, Senator from Florida. “Trump’s comments are not just offensive and inaccurate, but also divisive.” Texas Gov. Rick Perry was also critical, but somewhat less definite on Fox News: “I don’t think he’s reflecting the Republican Party with his statements about Mexicans. I think that was a huge error on his part.”
Rubio and Perry just register in the single digits among Republicans in the latest presidential preference polls. A Republican front-runner who clearly condemned Trump’s comments was Jeb Bush. He said, “To make these extraordinarily ugly kind of comments is not reflective of the Republican Party.”
Bush’s words set a standard for Republican rejection of Trump’s allegations about Mexican immigrants. The majority of Republican candidates were not willing to reject what Trump had said. Some, like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, agreed with Trump. Cruz told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press, “I salute Donald Trump for focusing on the need to address illegal immigration.” Cruz explained why he was not willing to criticize Trump. “I like Donald Trump. He’s bold, he’s brash. And I get that, that it seems the favorite sport of the Washington media is to encourage some Republicans to attack other Republicans. I ain’t gonna do it. I’m not interested in Republican on Republican violence.” Then last week Cruz called Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell a liar. Perhaps we can’t take these men’s words that seriously.
NJ Gov. Chris Christie said, “The comments were inappropriate and have no place in this race.” But added, “I like Donald. He’s a good guy.” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul dodged the issue: “I don’t know what he’s been saying, but he apparently is drawing a lot of attention.” Rick Santorum was unclear about where he stands: “While I don’t like the verbiage he’s used, I like the fact that he is focused on a very important issue for American workers and particularly legal immigrants in this country.”
Another one of the poll leaders, Scott Walker, said nothing that I could find about Trump’s comments on Mexicans. But when Trump said John McCain was not a war hero, Walker denounced him.
Reince Priebus is the chair of the Republican National Committee, so he offers the official Party line. At a press conference a few days after Trump’s comments, Priebus said, “Some comments can be helpful, some comments can be hurtful. Those particular comments, not helpful.”
The Republican party is divided about immigrants. Officially, the Party cannot bring itself to condemn false and defamatory comments about Mexicans. They can’t manage to say clearly that “Mexico” as a state is not sending anyone across our borders. A few individual candidates condemn Trump, but the majority of those leading in the polls, who are most likely to become the Republican candidate, prefer to avoid attacking his comments because they reflect the views of too many conservative Republicans.
In a poll done last week, 62% of respondents said they would definitely not vote for Trump if he were the Republican nominee. That number rises to 84% among Hispanics. Among conservative Republicans, 32% would definitely vote FOR Trump. There is the conflict for Republican contenders. Should I pander to the hatreds of my most prejudiced primary voters?
That may be a short-sighted approach. Giovanni Mata, the former chairman of the Suffolk County (NY) Hispanic Advisory Board, says voters “won't soon forget” the candidates who have refused to condemn Trump’s remarks.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 28, 2015