There is little question that most Democrats have assumed that a war that most Americans perceive as a disaster would be the issue on which they could defeat the Republicans in 2008.
Many Republicans assumed that the best chance they had for victory was a candidate who could articulate a case that the Democrats were still too soft on terror to be trusted.
Were they right?
Recent events in Iraq after the success of the troop surge that they opposed may mean that will be a point which may not work as well for them in the general election. But few Democratic voters care about whether a war they never supported is going better since they just want it to be over, no matter what we leave behind.
The main thing they seem to be looking for in a candidate is his or her ability to win. Both Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) promise victory. The differences between them seem to be more about personality, even though Obama and the other Dems who seek to avert a second Clinton presidency keep flailing away, trying to find some wedge issues.
On the Republican side, things are not quite so well-defined.
Race to the Bottom
While electability or opposing the Democrats' drive to end the war, regardless of the consequences or the fact that a focus on the threat from Islamist Iran may still motivate many Republicans, war and peace don't seem to be what the 2008 GOP race is about. Instead, immigration and faith seem to be the main talking points.
That has been the inescapable conclusion for anyone who has watched the Republican debates. The two GOP front-runners -- former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- have been sniping at each other incessantly on immigration.
Both have read polls that all say the same thing: The inability of this or any other U.S. government to stem the tide of illegal immigration is something that seems to drive many Americans off the deep end.
In one debate last month, the two embarrassed themselves trying to find inconsistencies in their opponent's records, and each succeeded. It wasn't hard. Prior to their running for president, both Giuliani and Romney realized that the 10 million to 12 million illegals are an economic and political fact of life. They also used to understand that scapegoating these undocumented migrants -- the overwhelming majority of whom came here to work -- was something decent Americans just didn't do.
Both have now rejected the better angels of the Republican nature as articulated by both President Bush, who has tried unsuccessfully for years to get Congress to pass guest-worker programs and to find a way to give the illegals a path to citizenship. Instead, Giuliani and Romney have led a race to the bottom of the political barrel on this point, causing fringe candidate Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), whose ludicrous call is for all illegals to be deported, to rightly say that it seemed as if both were echoing him.
For those who listen to right-wing talk-radio shows or monitor the GOP blogosphere, this doesn't come as a surprise. Being "tough" on undocumented Latinos who've come here to bus tables at restaurants or clean hotel rooms is considered by many influential right-wingers to be as important as a willingness to be tough on Al Qaeda or Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Indeed, all too many Americans seem to have confused the question of what to do about people who have obeyed the laws of supply and demand, and crossed the border to find below-minimum-wage work, with that of Islamists who want to blow us up.
Though most of those who now say that they're voting on immigration are not bigots themselves, they're still feeding into a tradition of nativism that has deep and ugly roots in American history.
The rise of multiculturalism and wrongheaded educational policies that often de-emphasize assimilation into American culture has undermined the faith of many grandchildren of immigrants in a process their own families went through not so long ago.
But once you strip away the largely superficial contemporary talking points about securing the border against terror, all you're left with is a sentiment that seems an echo of earlier "yellow peril" or anti-Irish, anti-Italian or anti-Jewish arguments that were heard in this country a century or more ago.
Men who are otherwise as sensible on economics and foreign policy as Giuliani and Romney should know that obsessing about illegal immigrants is largely irrelevant to the prosperity and the security of this country.
They are also sufficiently knowledgeable about American political history to know that -- polls notwithstanding -- their party will pay a terrible price if it allows this to become identified as a Republican issue. The Know-Nothings of the 19th century made a splash for a while, but they were soon extinct.
They will also ensure that the growing number of Hispanic-American voters -- whose positions on social issues and foreign policy ought to put them up for grabs -- will become a permanent part of the Democrats' coalition if immigrant-bashing becomes the sole property of the GOP.
The 'Christian' Candidate
Just as vile is the other main Republican story line -- the rise of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in the polls.
Though an articulate down-home-style speaker, Huckabee's key talking point isn't so much his charm as his religion. The Baptist minister has crept up in the polls as much on the strength of his ability to flex his "Christian" credentials as on his hard-core anti-abortion positions.
His goal is to eclipse the Mormon Romney as the pro-life standard-bearer who could prevent a pro-abortion-rights candidate like Giuliani from winning. To do so, Huckabee has emphasized his faith in a way that has clearly appealed to evangelicals who regard the Latter-day Saints (as Mormons term themselves) as non-Christians.
Romney has attempted to defend himself against this prejudiced attack, but it remains to be seen whether it will be enough to save his chances to win the Iowa primary, where Huckabee's "Christian" ads are believed to be shifting the tide.
In the end, it may not matter so much which of these men wins the nomination if, once he's won, they will all have driven the GOP debate into the murky waters of nativism and religious prejudice.
In such an atmosphere, a more realistic attitude about Iran may not matter much.
That may be good news for Democrats, who expect to win this year no matter who the Republican candidate turns out to be. But it is still a result that all Americans who understand that protecting the rights of minorities of all faiths and backgrounds is an essential part of American democracy should regret.
Contact Jonathan S. Tobin via e-mail at: [email protected] . com.