Washington—Rather than shout, I'll just ask the question in a civil way: Dear Republicans, do you really want to endanger your party's greatest political legacy by turning the 14th Amendment to our Constitution into an excuse for election-year ugliness?
Honestly, I thought our politics could not get worse, and suddenly there appears this attack on birthright citizenship and the introduction into popular use of the hideous term "anchor babies," children that illegal immigrants have for the alleged purpose of "anchoring" themselves to American rights and the welfare state.
Particularly depressing is the fact that the idea of repealing the 14th Amendment's guarantee of citizenship to "all persons born or naturalized in the United States" was given momentum by one of the nation's most reasonable conservatives.
"People come here to have babies," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "They come here to drop a child. It's called, 'drop and leave.' To have a child in America, they cross the border, they go to the emergency room, have a child, and that child's automatically an American citizen. That shouldn't be the case. That attracts people here for all the wrong reasons."
Drop a child? How can a strong believer in the right to life use such a phrase?
I can't do better on this than The Cleveland Plain Dealer's estimable columnist Connie Schultz: "I have lived for more than half a century, and I have yet to meet a mother anywhere in the world who would describe the excruciating miracle of birth as 'dropping' a baby."
Graham has long favored comprehensive immigration reform, so it's hard to escape the thought that his talk of child-dropping is designed to appease a right wing out to get him because he's "too liberal."
Just as dispiriting: Sen. John McCain, another once brave champion of immigration reform who faces an Arizona Republican primary challenge on Aug. 24, tried to duck the issue. He said he supports "the concept of holding hearings" on the meaning of the 14th Amendment's birthright citizenship clause.
This is better than endorsing outright repeal, but what a difference from the old McCain whose conscience once compelled him to say of illegal immigrants: "These are God's children as well, and they need some protections under the law, and they need some of our love and compassion."
Nothing should make Republicans prouder than their party's role in passing what are known as the Civil War or Reconstruction amendments: the 13th ending slavery, the 14th guaranteeing equal protection under the law and establishing national standards for citizenship, and the 15th protecting the right to vote. In those days, Democrats were the racial demagogues.
Opponents of the 14th Amendment used racist arguments against immigrants to try to kill it, even though there were virtually no immigration restrictions back then. President Andrew Johnson played the card aggressively, as University of Baltimore law professor Garrett Epps reports in his 2006 book on the 14th Amendment, "Democracy Reborn."
"This provision comprehends the Chinese of the Pacific States, Indians subject to taxation, the people called Gipsies, as well as the entire race designated as blacks, people of color, negroes, mulattoes, and persons of African blood," Johnson declared. "Is it sound policy to make our entire colored population and all other excepted classes citizens of the United States?"
Republicans were taken aback that Gypsies were suddenly transformed into a great national peril as part of the campaign against the amendment. In his definitive book "Reconstruction," historian Eric Foner cites a bemused Republican senator who observed in 1866: "I have lived in the United States now for many a year and really I have heard more about Gypsies within the past two or three months than I have heard before in my life."
The methods of politics don't change much, even if the targets of demagoguery do.
Epps cites an 1859 oration by Carl Schurz, the German immigrant and Republican leader who helped deliver his community's vote to Abraham Lincoln in 1864. Schurz later became a leading backer of the 14th Amendment.
"All the social and national elements of the civilized world are represented in the new land," Schurz declared. In our nation, "their peculiar characteristics are to be blended together by the all-assimilating power of freedom. This is the origin of the American nationality, which did not spring from one family, one tribe, one country, but incorporates the vigorous elements of all civilized nations on earth."
That is the American tradition and the Republican tradition. Senator Graham, please don't throw it away.
E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.
(c) 2010, Washington Post Writers Group