Opinion: The Politics of Civility – President Obama should call for a tempered tone on immigration

Published on June 2nd, 2009

Mark Cromer
May 31, 2009

President Obama skillfully used the dissent generated by his appearance at Notre Dame as an opportunity to again call for a more civil tone in the national dialogue over abortion.

Noting the obvious — that the philosophical divide between the pro-life and pro-choice sides are essentially "irreconcilable" — Mr. Obama said passion and conviction need not come at the expense of respectful consideration of opposing viewpoints, no matter what side one is on.

But now that the president has called for America to dial it down a notch when it comes to abortion, he should also make the same plea for a different issue: immigration.

Mr. Obama is widely expected to step in front of teleprompters sometime during the next three months to announce his support for another attempt at immigration reform, but the president should not wait another day to strongly urge a civil discourse during this escalating debate. And the president should follow it up by publicly calling out those who resort to corrosive smears in lieu of reasoned argument.

A variety of groups on both sides of the blistering debate over immigration have resorted to caustic, broad-brush attacks that demean people more than advance an idea. But there also is no question that those favoring amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants have systematically employed a highly coordinated and well-funded campaign to silence opponents of their views.

The centerpiece of that campaign has been to deride as a "bigot" anyone of consequence who opposes amnesty, effectively poisoning the well of public discourse with such toxic animus that productive debate evaporates into a cloud of resentment and recrimination.

The underlying motive for such a smear campaign is easy enough to understand; by muzzling critics, it is hoped that Congress will mistake cowed silence as genuine acceptance by the electorate of another amnesty.

If the highly charged debate over abortion warrants some moderating by the president, then Mr. Obama surely knows that the next round of the immigration debate calls for the same intervention. While the nation convulsed in the late 1980s and early 1990s over the fate of Roe v. Wade, it is the debate over immigration and its associated issues of culture, language, assimilation and crowding that burn hot in America today.

In fact, some of the same over-the-top analogies employed by the most extreme pro-life radicals have been gleefully co-opted and employed by those favoring amnesty.

Just as pro-choice groups and doctors who perform abortions have been smeared as operating something akin to the genocidal Nazi death camps, those favoring enforcement of immigration laws and opposing amnesty have been tarred as political descendants of the Nazis, complete with comparisons of Immigration & Customs Enforcement to the Gestapo and deportation holding areas to Dachau.

But while Mr. Obama certainly knows he should speak up in order to help tamp down the rhetoric, whether he will rise to the occasion remains highly questionable.

Just over a year ago, then candidate Obama stood in Philadelphia and used his skill at delivering a prepared address to explore race relations in America, in the process calling for a renewed effort to engage each other with civility on one of the nation’s deepest, most active fault lines.

But far from being the opening remarks in a long national dialogue that he would lead — as only a man who is in fact both black and white can — America hasn’t really heard a peep from him on the issue of race since then (much to the relief of Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, no doubt).

The similarity between his address in Philadelphia and his commencement keynote in South Bend, Ind., is clear: Both were tied directly to his own political fortunes.

Mr. Obama in Philadelphia was fighting to prevent the incendiary remarks of Rev. Jeremiah Wright from sinking his presidential bid. At Notre Dame, Mr. Obama sought to cool tempers and smooth feathers in advance of naming his nominee to the Supreme Court — an appointment that comes as polls show a majority of Americans now consider themselves pro-life.

Mr. Obama shouldn’t wait for another political weather report before stepping up in prime time to call for an honest and open debate over the merits of granting amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants. He should advocate a vigorous national argument that comes, as he noted in South Bend, "without reducing those with differing viewpoints to caricature."

Like the Class of 2009 at Notre Dame, America doesn’t just deserve to hear that from the president, it needs to — and the sooner, the better.

The author is a senior writing fellow at Californians for Population Stabilization.

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