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Bill Clinton and Obama Agree: GOP Will Make Immigration an Issue

Former President Bill Clinton campaigning on behalf of his wife in Onawa, Iowa. (Getty).

DES MOINES, Iowa--Barack Obama said publicly Thursday what many Democrats are fretting about privately these days, which is that the Republicans will be coming after them next year on the issue of immigration and they'd better get ready.

Obama made that observation when my colleague Shailagh Murray and I asked him about immigration during an interview aboard his campaign bus in Iowa. "My estimation is that the Republicans will run on two issues, and two issues only," he said. "Terrorism and immigration. That is going to be their campaign."

During two days of town hall meetings in southeast Iowa, before otherwise friendly audiences of Democrats, Obama was repeatedly challenged on immigration. The sense of frustration and anger about illegal immigration was evident at virtually every stop and it seemed a harbinger of what could be the Democrats most difficult challenge in 2008.

Obama said Democrats must do two things. First, make "absolutely clear" that their party is determined to shut down the flow of illegal immigrants into the country, but, second, to do so in a way that shows the United States can be a "nation of laws and a nation of immigrants at the same time."

Obama accused Republicans of trying to demagogue the issue but sounded wary about whether Democrats are equipped to counter GOP attacks. "There's no doubt there will be attempts made to hit whoever the Democratic nominee is on this issue. And we have to stand our ground and not be defensive."

On this subject, Obama and former President Bill Clinton agree. The former president is known to believe that of all the issues likely to be at the forefront of the 2008 campaign, immigration holds the greatest potential peril for the Democrats.

Like Obama he believes terrorism will be one of the other major issues Republicans use in 2008, but he is confident that the Democratic nominee, whether his wife Hillary Clinton or one or her current rivals, can neutralize it. Immigration is another story. "He thinks all their usual tricks aren't going to work this time but that the one scare tactic they can use is this," said one Democratic strategist.

Which is why the former president was so upset with what happened at the Democratic debate in Philadelphia a week ago, when his wife was targeted with a question about whether she supports a New York plan to allow illegal immigrants to apply for drivers licenses.

The Clinton campaign has chastised me for mischaracterizing some of the former president's recent remarks about this when he was in Nevada earlier this week. Two days ago I wrote that he had accused his wife's Democratic rivals of trying to do to her what the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth had done to John F. Kerry in 2004. Clinton advisers said he was doing nothing of the sort, that in fact he was warning Democrats not to let themselves be put in situations where they make themselves vulnerable to such attacks from Republicans in 2008.

Because there was confusion about what he actually said in Las Vegas, the former president used a press availability with reporters in Chicago this week to explain what he really meant. Here's what he said: "It is a difficult, complicated and important issue," he said. "What I thought was not good was waiting until the very end [of the debate], when we were in the part where everybody was supposed to answer the question in 30 seconds, and then asking all the candidates to hold their hands up. Because I thought it made all the Democrats vulnerable to a Swift Boat kind of ad in the general election."

A reporter asked Clinton "You're saying they were creating an opening for a Republican to do a Swift Boat ad later, not for another Democrat?"

Clinton responded, "No, no, no. I thought it was fine. I thought that debate was fine. I thought everything, you know, I think it's legitimate to talk about illegal immigration. Legitimate to ask Hillary whether she supports what her governor does in New York about the licensing -- no, no, no. What I said was if you're going to discuss these things in a televised debate, they should have asked all the Democrats, like in the second section of the debate, where they'd all had time to give an answer and they could follow up and they could do that. That's all. I think that's the misunderstanding."

Clinton said he has a hard and fast rule. "I don't criticize the other Democrats. I can disagree with them on the issues, but I want to keep our party together. I want us to win in November. And the thing I didn't like about the way that Mr. Russert [NBC's Tim Russert] asked the question was it was like setting them all up to be cartoonized. That's what I mean."

Had I seen that transcript two days ago, I would have characterized his criticisms differently. At the same time, advisers to Hillary Clinton's rivals see what happened in that debate differently than does the former president. They do not regard Russert's question as unfair or impertinent or as giving Republicans an opening that doesn't already exist. They still believe she was asked a straightforward question about drivers licenses for illegal immigrants and muffed the question -- and they believe her husband was trying to make excuses for a poor performance.

The broader point of all this is that Bill Clinton's concerns about thee potential power of the immigration issues to cause Democrats big problems in 2008 are understandable -- and generally shared by others in the party.

Having listened to both Hillary Clinton and Obama answer tough questions on immigration from voters this week, it's clear there is almost no difference between the two of them on the overall topic. Neither can answer the question in 30 seconds or even two minutes. The Democratic position takes time to explain and includes plenty of qualifiers to soften the message that they favor providing a path to legal status for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now in the country.

Hillary Clinton may have stumbled in the Philadelphia debate, but every Democratic running for president knows that tough questions will keep coming from the voters -- and the Republicans -- this year and next.

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  November 9, 2007; 12:28 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Barack Obama , Dan Balz's Take  
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