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The GOP split between rhetoric and reality

TUESDAY’S debate revealed a significant split in the Republican Party between Reality and Rhetoric, Ideas and Ideology.

Sen. John McCain was asked a question that sounded like it had been dreamed up by Tom Clancy: Would he, in a totally “what-if” scenario, torture prisoners to prevent a theoretical terrorist attack?

Sen. McCain, who has actually been tortured, for years on end, by a ruthless enemy, gave a thoughtful answer based on bitter experience: Knowing the United States would not do what the North Vietnamese were doing to him kept him going, kept him believing in his country and what it stood for. Besides, he didn’t want to give enemies an excuse to torture our troops.

Rep. Tom Tancredo said he would call the fictional Jack Bauer. Others were no more realistic. Their answers had nothing to do with winning a war and everything to do with stirring the blood.

Then there’s immigration.

During the debate, Sen. McCain — again — spoke of his work on the issue that most candidates, and most members of Congress, would rather rant than do anything about.

Two days later, he stood up with a bipartisan group of senators to announce a deal, months in the making, that represented the first attempt to address immigration comprehensively after a year of stalemate.

Immediately, the Big GOP Split reasserted itself with a thunderous crack. South Carolina’s U.S. senators illustrated the split. Lindsey Graham — who had been late for the debate Tuesday because the White House had asked him to stay and help hammer out the agreement — hailed the proposal as “the last, best chance we have, probably for decades, to fix immigration.”

Jim DeMint, sounding peeved at not having been in the room, was dismissive: “I don’t care how you try to spin it, this is amnesty.”

He didn’t know yet what was in the bill, but he knew the magic word for condemning it.

Sen. Graham had this to say about that: “Amnesty is a pardon and means all is forgiven. This legislation is not amnesty.... I hope all Senators, particularly those who were not part of the negotiations, will become more informed about the details of the bill before making incorrect statements. Here are the facts... . Illegal aliens will not be allowed to jump in line for citizenship ahead of those currently waiting. If they want to become citizens they must pay fines, learn English, pass a civics exam, undergo background checks and leave the United States and return to their country of origin. The punishment is fair and just. The public expects Members of Congress to speak their minds, but be informed in their opinions.”

That’s too much trouble for some. I asked Rep. Tancredo Friday morning, when he called into a radio show I was on, whether this compromise wasn’t better than doing nothing. He was unequivocal: “Doing nothing is better.”

I mentioned that to Sen. Graham Friday afternoon. “The Tancredo model never leads to a solution,” he said.

“I have decided, as a United States senator, to stand on principle, and try to solve problems. And they’re not inconsistent. One of the principles that made America great is that the problem-solvers have always been greater in number and will than the demagogues.”

He said, when a reporter asked, that he was not referring to Jim DeMint. “Jim is a very serious guy,” he said. But, he added, “one thing I would suggest is that before you enflame the public by using buzzwords, let’s look and see what we did.”

Shortly after Sen. Graham said that, Sen. DeMint put out another release, complaining that the negotiators were trying to rush the bill through without letting him and others see whether they could go for it (which may very well be what they’re doing). He raised the “A-word” again, but in a somewhat more conciliatory way: “As we understand it, this plan will grant amnesty... This can be fixed, but it will take time and there is no way the Senate can responsibly complete this debate in one week.”

On the presidential campaign trail, however, there was little appetite for closing gaps and getting things done. Mitt Romney wasn’t waiting around for details: “I strongly oppose today’s bill going through the Senate. It is the wrong approach.”

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s campaign put out a statement purporting to address the proposal that was, to say the least, oblique: “The recent Fort Dix plot is a stark reminder that the threat of terrorism has made immigration an important matter of national security. We need to know who is coming in and who is going out of this country if we are going to deal with those who are here illegally.”

As Sen. McCain had said during the debate, the Fort Dix plotters didn’t sneak into the country illegally. The issues are completely unrelated.

I don’t know what to do about illegal immigration. I want to see the laws enforced. I also want the laws to recognize reality.

In a different context, I asked former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee about the difference between being a governor and existing inside the Beltway: “You actually are going to have to do something” if you’re a governor, he said. “You don’t have the luxury of being an ideologue.”

Some inside the Beltway want to do something, too. They’ve made a dramatic effort in that direction with this immigration bill. I don’t know whether it’s the way to go or not. But I suspect that the biggest barrier facing it will be Republicans who prefer to luxuriate in ideology.

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