It seems like the first thing political consultants these days ask a candidate in a race that will attract national attention is, "Got a book in ya?"
A glowing hagiography or a poll-protected political platform in hardcover form almost has become a prerequisite for someone making a presidential run. Such books usually are hack jobs, too safe by half to be interesting. But the temptation is obvious: what other form of political advertising can both lend the candidate an air of intellectual heft and has the potential to turn a profit?
Occasionally, this marketing plan produces something of value. Sen. John McCain's 1999 book about his family's military history, Faith of My Fathers, was an artfully non-political book on its face and a borderline classic as a military memoir. It served a far better purpose than McCain's self-serving and very safe campaign bio, Worth the Fighting For, written three years later, which mostly served to titillate members of the media searching for signs that McCain would run as an independent presidential candidate or take on George W. Bush in the 2004 primaries.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-CO, is hardly known for playing it safe, and In Mortal Danger: The Battle for America's Border and Security is his entry into the pre-campaign book sweepstakes. It may not be a minor classic like McCain's first book, but it isn't as superficial as his second one either and lays out a rhetorically aggressive and clear agenda for his presidential run focusing on immigration, the issue the Congressman, perhaps more than any other politician, has put on the front burner of our politics.
Because of his tough stance on illegal immigration and his constant battles with multiculturalists, Tancredo is often called a "nativist" (in polite company) and unfairly lumped in with Pat Buchanan's "Fortress America" crowd. Tancredo, however, is more interesting than that not only because his thoughts on immigration are more nuanced, but also because he is willing to use American power abroad to protect the nation and to project freedom in America's interest.
Tancredo sets the stage for his argument on border security with a three-chapter attack on multiculturalism, and a call for a renewed sense of citizenship and what it means to be an American. However, the fact that Tancredo uses this point as a foundation is more interesting than what he actually writes. He offers nothing that anyone interested in the debate hasn't heard before, and the writing is obviously culled from his stump speeches (particularly his repetitive use of the phrase "what I like to call 'the cult of multiculturalism'").
The book really hits its stride in Chapter 4, as Tancredo recounts the heavy-handed way in which Denver's political elites forced bilingualism down the throats of the patrons and staff of the Denver Public Library system. This makes for a brilliant bridge from the issue of multiculturalism to border security and the outrageous notion that Americans are required to provide public benefits for people who are in the country illegally.
Generally, this argument centers around providing humanitarian aid. About caring for illegals, leftists inevitably ask: "What are you going to do, let them starve/bleed to death/die of disease?" But Tancredo shows the ridiculous extent to which the migrant rights activists' arguments inevitably take them with what evolved in Denver. There, the library in effect took the position that illegal immigrants have a human right to pornographic comic books in their own language.
Before tackling border security, Tancredo discusses security in general, tackling counterterrorism and identifying the clash of civilizations between Islamofascism and the West. Again, not much here is new, but it is interesting as a campaign stance: Tancredo throws down the gauntlet and challenges other candidates to identify the enemy in the Global War on Terror by its real name.
Once Tancredo launches into the issues that are his specialty, his writing gains real force. He illuminates the problem of security on the Mexican border and questions whether anyone duty-bound to protect American borders is actually committed to doing so, other than some beleaguered men and women on the ground. In fact, he makes a persuasive case that those officials are actively preventing border security.
Tancredo writes that putting the Border Patrol in the Department of Homeland Security has been about as good for that agency as it was for FEMA, despite the fact that the border is a national security issue. He tells story after story of enforcement personnel being discouraged from or disciplined for doing their jobs. Even after the 9/11 terror attacks, border crossings are treated as a customer service issue, not a security issue.
Even people involved in the illegal immigration debate may be surprised by his stories of the general lawlessness of the U.S.-Mexican border. From criminal gangs brazenly engaged in smuggling people into America to incursions by the Mexican military (or their surrogates, known as Madrinas), the border effectively is controlled by gangs that have the meagerly supplied authorities outgunned.
The U.S. government, the only institution capable of taking charge, has distributed instructions to its personnel on how to "defuse tensions" arising from such incursions. What does this mean in practice? Basically, ignore them.
Tancredo relates several very effective accounts of long-time ranchers in border areas who have been abandoned by their government. It's not just that a few people's lives and property have been ruined by this abdication of responsibility; there is a real principle of third-grade social studies involved. One of the first requirements to be considered an actual nation state is to have an enforceable border.
Tancredo, however, is ineffective when trying to counter the Wall Street Journal editorial board and other pro-immigration conservatives on the economics of illegal migration. Still, his arguments recounting the enormous costs of health care coverage on demand and the burdens on hospitals and schools are undeniable and effective – with the exception of his contention that illegals drive down wages. In one passage that sounds like something out of an old labor union newsletter – at least before the SEIU decided to fight for illegal immigrants's "rights" – Tancredo writes:
There are Americans all over the country who are either unemployed or underemployed. Many people in my district, for example, trained for high tech jobs, but now they drive cabs at night to earn a living. That's because big corporations have been outsourcing their jobs – in the name of free trade – to other nations whose workers cost less. Outsourcing has forced many Americans to take jobs that of any kind in order to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. But Americans are unable to find even those jobs because they are going to illegal aliens – and for far less than what you and I would consider "prevailing" wages.
I'd like to see some statistics about unemployed professionals competing with migrant workers for jobs. I suspect that bean farmers in Michigan have not been besieged by former Delphi engineers looking for work.
It's also probably not wise for a guy who gets called a racist and a nativist to repeatedly evoke the 1950s as an ideal time for civic duty or pride in American exceptionalism. And even people who agree that bilingual education is a self-defeating and divisive abomination, and bilingual voting is cultural suicide, might consider the call to boycott businesses that provide services in a multitude of languages going too far.
None of these objections call into question Tancredo's basic premise and arguments. His willingness to take risks, discuss uncomfortable truths, propose reforms that shock the elites, quote the Bible in ways so specific that it makes George W. Bush seem like an 18th century Deist, and unapologetically stand up for the idea of a unique American culture far outweigh any small faults.
While most of the details of Tancredo's call to action will strike the majority of Americans as eminently sensible, they will elicit howls of protest from the political and media elites who consider borders passe. And while his positions would poll very favorably with voters, about half are unlikely to be voted on in Congress in the near future.
Once the campaigning is over, Tancredo should find a co-author and do a full-fledged book on the subjects he has made his own. He has a hot topic, the facts on his side, a compelling story to tell – and the guts to tell it like it is.