WASHINGTON — A contemporary Willie Horton has turned up in the Democratic presidential campaign, and so far he is winning. No such person sat in the Drexel University auditorium during the Democrats’ debate on Tuesday night. But the candidates, especially the unprepared front-runner, Hillary Clinton, should long ago have recognized that Republicans and a shrill conservative chorus intend to make Hispanic illegal immigrants the Willie Hortons of 2008.

Horton, an African-American, was the poster child of the 1988 presidential campaign. He was a convicted murderer given a weekend furlough from prison during the administration of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee. Horton did not return, and 10 months later he raped a Maryland woman and brutally assaulted her fiance. Republican mastermind Lee Atwater, political godfather of today’s Karl Rove, used Horton to play on the fear and racial animosity that so often are great motivators of the American electorate.

The Horton ad campaign conducted on behalf of George H.W. Bush’s candidacy was decried as racist and distorted. But it worked. And it became emblematic of how to run a devastatingly effective negative campaign.

The current Republican war on illegal immigrants could be as potent a wedge issue as race and crime were in the 1980s. It exploits people’s fear that invading waves of Hispanics — you never hear anyone talk about building a fence along the Canadian border, or rounding up Eastern Europeans who’ve slipped in — are overrunning neighborhoods and schools, robbing legitimate workers of jobs and somehow diminishing the American dream.

It is not only that Clinton was caught flatfooted and evasive during the debate when she was asked if she supported New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s plan to grant driver’s licenses to the undocumented. It’s that other candidates are buying into the dangerous premise that they, too, must talk tough on immigrants. Chris Dodd piously announced that obtaining a driver’s license is a “privilege,” not to be granted to those here illegally; Joe Biden, in a post-debate interview, also said he was against granting licenses.

The position is absurd. This means these candidates believe it’s better to have unlicensed drivers on the roads than it is to have illegal immigrants do what everyone else must do before barreling down the interstate: demonstrate basic driving skills and knowledge of traffic regulations, and drive a car that’s insured and inspected.

Clinton, for all her equivocation, got the answer partly right. Noting that New York has several million undocumented workers, she said: “They are driving on our roads. The possibility of them having an accident that harms themselves or others is just a matter of the odds.” Barack Obama was clearer in endorsing the licenses outright. “There is a public safety concern,” he said.

The dust-up over the license issue has dominated post-debate coverage. In the political horse race narrative to which the media is addicted, Clinton was outpaced.

But there is a larger lesson for Democrats. They must turn the conservatives’ pounding of immigrants back upon them, because it is a rant and a political tactic — not a policy. No Democrat running for any office should fail to demand answers to some basic questions:

What, exactly, would conservatives do with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants who are now here? Would they round them up and deport them all? Who would execute the raids?

What would this mass deportation cost? One think-tank estimate, based on deporting 10 million, puts the price as high as $230 billion. How would this expense be met? Does the candidate favor a special, anti-immigrant tax to be paid by law-abiding Americans? (Now that would prompt some intriguing responses.)

And what of the estimated 3.1 million children of illegal immigrants who have been born in the United States? They are American citizens, entitled to every protection enjoyed by those whose hot rhetoric so excites the airwaves. The options are for these children to leave and live in a country that is not theirs, or break up families so children may remain here. So much for the family values of the family values crowd.

The disaster of immigration policy is federal, but it is no longer enough for Democrats to blame President Bush for failure to achieve a comprehensive solution. The public lashes out with ill-conceived punishments it can mete out at the local or state level — and with astonishing debates about whether drivers who already are on the road should be properly licensed and insured like everyone else.

Democrats must rebut these fantasies with facts. Otherwise they will spend the coming year living uncomfortably with an updated Willie Horton.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.