Don't worry: Tom Tancredo--the latest Republican to stick a toe in the presidential waters--knows exactly what he's doing. The Colorado congressman's sporadic inflammatory outbursts are merely part of a symbiotic relationship with the media. The process goes something like this: (1) Tancredo lets fly with a provocative statement, (2) the media run with statement, meeting their right-wingers-are-fanatics quota for the day, and (3) Tancredo's name recognition grows.
Take Tancredo's recent assertion that Miami is a "third world country." The comment provoked humor columnist Dave Barry to retort by calling him a "xenophobic dimwit" and "stupid idiot" (really, the insults were funny in context). But the very fact that Barry used his nationally syndicated column to hammer a representative from a quiet suburban Denver district proves that Tancredo is far from an idiot.
"Calculating politician" might be a more appropriate description. Like anyone in his line of work, Tancredo craves publicity. Feeding off a growing agitation over illegal immigration, the congressman has an edge on his colleagues. Many of Tancredo's supporters have legitimate concerns about border enforcement; others believe the United States is turning into Guatemala; and then there's a group that is convinced George Bush--with the help of sinister multinational corporations--is trying to sell our sovereignty to China for kicks. To save America from these various self-inflicted calamities, Tancredo has formed a presidential exploratory committee.
Tancredo, who boasts a 99 lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, has, in recent weeks, brandished his credentials on various bread-and-butter issues as evidence that his concerns are wide ranging. "It appears to me that there is a void, which I think I can fill, [being] a true conservative with a conservative history," Tancredo recently explained. "I believe I can play a role, and I believe I can be viable."
But of course, he's not a viable candidate. He's defined by one issue. The question is, How does the congressman intend to propel that issue to the forefront of the 2008 Republican presidential primary race?
If history is any indication, he intends to do it loudly.
Tancredo, we should assume, will go on the attack, demanding that his primary opponents take substantive policy positions on immigration. You can envision the confrontation now: Tancredo wants to know if Sam Brownback supports "amnesty" for illegal aliens. "Well, do you, punk?"
Then again, Tancredo is already on record accusing Brownback of being "as left as they come" on border control and John McCain and Rudy Giuliani of being "disastrous" candidates. McCain, one of the Senate's leaders on comprehensive immigration reform, is the author of what Tancredo calls the "McKennedy Plan."
Will Tancredo's hostility toward the senators and Giuliani benefit someone like Mitt Romney? Perhaps the more pertinent question is: Does anyone actually covet Tancredo's approval to begin with? After all, there's baggage that accompanies this four-term congressman. It's not only the border-first conservatives who connect with Tom Tancredo. You have your Lou Dobbs Democrats (a spot-on expression coined by Jacob Weisberg of Slate), populists, isolationists, protectionists, Buchananites . . . and worse.
David Duke thinks that Tancredo is "pretty good" and a candidate he would "probably vote for" come Election Day, at least according to a piece in the left-wing Nation. Your average politician would hightail it to the nearest microphone and immediately distance himself from that unseemly endorsement. Not Tancredo. He offers up a perfunctory statement about the dangers of presuming guilt by association.
He may have a point. But accusations of bigotry have hounded Tancredo his entire career. The congressman admits that he doesn't much like it when people call him a racist or xenophobe. He insists, "In my heart, I know that I'm not." Having met Tancredo on numerous occasions and watched him interact with his constituents and fans, I have a hard time believing the affable congressman is Father Coughlin in an unstylish sweater.
Yet, it's virtually impossible to ignore the ugliness that can surround him. Only recently, speaking in Columbia, South Carolina, at a gathering of the "Americans Have Had Enough Coalition," Tancredo reportedly hung out with a gaggle of neo-Confederates from the local chapter of the League of the South--who held a barbeque in his honor. On the other extreme, it's been reported that Tancredo accepts financial support from the likes of John Tanton, a Malthusian environmentalist, who is the antithesis of anyone's idea of a "true conservative."
Obviously Tancredo, a self-styled outsider, doesn't feel constricted by traditional political alliances. This is the man who claims Karl Rove told him to never "darken the door of the White House" after he criticized the president's immigration policy. (Sometimes I wonder if this drama was based on a true story--as it fits a little too neatly into Tancredo's opportunistic narrative.) In any event, opposing the president doesn't exactly merit a profile in courage these days.
"It's not a secret that I have burned a lot of bridges here," Tancredo once said about his time in Washington. "My ability to get anything done around here is based around my ability to make this into a national issue. My megaphone is pointed at the ear of America." Will his megaphone make a difference this primary race? And if he fails to accomplish his goal, will Tancredo opt to become a third-party candidate, with the potential to siphon pivotal votes in states like Iowa and Colorado?
Does Tancredo have the national support and monetary muscle to become a political spoiler in the mold of Ross Perot or Ralph Nader?
T.Q. Houlton, a spokesman for the Tancredo for a Secure America Exploratory Committee, claimed, "We've had no intention to run as a third-party candidate, ever, and we'll never consider that because he's a Republican, period." So there is no reason to doubt Tancredo will remain under the Republican tent--though some Coloradans might recall the congressman, after championing term-limits in his home state, broke that pledge.
Tancredo recently handed over the chairmanship of the Congres sional Immigration Reform Caucus--a group he has led since his first term in the House, and which has grown from 16 members to over 100--to Rep. Brian Bilbray of California. It was seen as another sign that Tancredo is focused on making some hay.
But we all know Tancredo's serious. What we don't know is if it will matter.
David Harsanyi is a columnist at the Denver Post and author of the forthcoming Nanny State: How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists, and other Boneheaded Bureaucrats are Turning America into a Nation of Children (Doubleday/Broadway).