When the topic is immigration, the mainstream media and the activists who support citizenship for illegal immigrants play favorites. They continually attack Republicans while giving Democrats a free ride.
Take the case of Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., who at a recent town hall meeting in Murfreesboro, Tenn., told 11-year-old Josie Molina, whose father is being deported, that "we have laws, and we need to follow those laws." Since then, DesJarlais has been criticized by media outlets, liberal blogs and advocacy groups as being cold and heartless. Yet these interested parties have not raised a fuss about the cold and heartless Democratic president who is trying to deport the girl's father.
Or the case of National Republican Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who recently said that Mitt Romney's use of the phrase "self-deportation" during the 2012 presidential campaign was "horrific" and that when a candidate says something like that, "obviously, it hurts us." Activists seized on those remarks to bash Republicans. Yet, they turn a blind eye to the real horror -- the fact that the Obama administration is on track to have deported nearly 2 million people, and break up thousands of families, by the end of 2013.
This selective outrage isn't fair to Republicans. But it also isn't helpful to Democrats. Once they figure out that they don't have to bring their A-game to the immigration debate, they get lazy, complacent, and glib. They get accustomed to softball questions from reporters in Washington or New York who really don't understand the immigration issue to begin with.
Besides, Democrats can usually count on a Republican official to say something that is nativist or nonsensical -- or both. Once this happens, it changes the subject, and lets Democrats off the hook. Activists don't expect much from them, and so they get little in return. Before long, those on the left lose their skills and forget how to debate the subject in an intelligent manner -- or even discuss it in a way that is halfway coherent.
Which brings us to Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who recently got tongue-tied at a town hall forum in his home state. Harkin was trying to explain to a roomful of conservative constituents why he supports the Senate immigration bill, which would offer a pathway to citizenship to illegal immigrants.
"I separate out people who came here illegally from people who are criminals," he said. "Now it's obvious that they broke laws and did things that were criminal and they shouldn't. But I'm just saying simply because they came here to work -- to provide for their family. They've broken no laws other than coming here illegally. They're here illegally -- that's true. And they need to go through all the hoops we put in the bill. But I just don't classify them as criminals."
What a train wreck. As explanations go, that is taking the long way home. Harkin could have been much clearer and saved half those words by simply pointing out that immigration law is based on civil and not criminal infractions, thus those who violate it can't be called criminals. That's why we deport people who enter the country without authorization, and usually don't send them to prison.
The fact that Harkin couldn't quite get those words out of his mouth suggests two things -- either he doesn't really believe what he's saying, or he is uneasy about being seen by fellow Iowans as condoning unlawful activity. Maybe both.
This story matters. It provides valuable insight into something that doesn't get enough attention in this debate, namely that it's not just Republicans who struggle with how to talk about immigration. Democrats aren't experts either. While Republicans try to cater to pro-business supporters without turning away the nativist faction within the GOP, Democrats have to worry about courting Latinos who want the undocumented treated with fairness and compassion without alienating whites and African-Americans by appearing soft on illegal immigration.
The GOP's approach to immigration is often so clumsy, so simplistic, so ignorant and so vindictive that it is no wonder that it turns off many Latinos.
I get that. What I don't get is how Democrats continually offer Latinos -- and the overall debate -- so little, and still manage to receive a pass. These kinds of low expectations don't benefit anyone, least of all Democrats.
Ruben Navarrette's email address is email@example.com.