Playing the Foreign Card

Playing the Foreign Card

By Ruben Navarrette - October 20, 2010

SAN DIEGO -- Either Democrats have bad memories or they have no shame.

Even in the heat of an election where it appears they're about to get hammered, Democrats should know better than to play the "foreign card."

Yet that's what they're doing. The strategy is to turn up the heat on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a generous contributor to Republican candidates and an effective counterweight to labor unions that give millions of dollars to Democrats. The preferred line of attack is that the chamber is acting as a conduit for money from foreign entities that want to influence our elections.

(The chamber does accept contributions from outside the United States, but officials insist that this money is kept separate from the funds used for political contributions.)

President Obama recently seemed to take a swipe at the chamber when he decried television ads blasting Democrats and the fact that "one of the largest groups paying for these ads regularly takes in money from foreign corporations."

Vice President Joe Biden went after Karl Rove, the former White House adviser who has started an advocacy group that has raised millions of dollars for Republicans. Biden says he is concerned about these funds because: "We don't know if they're coming from foreign sources."

The Democratic National Committee has released a new television ad blasting Republican congressional candidates because "it appears they've even taken secret foreign money to influence our elections." And the liberal group has claimed that "(f)oreign corporations are funding some of the $75 million the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is spending to defeat Democrats."

As political tactics go, playing the foreign card is both offensive and dangerous. It exploits people's fears of the unknown and appeals to the prejudice that many of us feel toward those who are different. It also fuels ugly nativist instincts that -- once unleashed -- can do real damage.

Democrats know this better than anyone because, over the last few years, this card has been played with regularity against the leader of their party: Barack Obama. In fact, when the story is written about Obama's arrival on the national political scene, members of both political parties will have a lot for which to atone.

That includes a Democrat who endorsed Obama's rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, for president. Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska senator, said during the Democratic primary that Obama should not be penalized for attending a "secular madrassa" as a child -- a claim that had, at the time, already been discredited by the media. A day earlier, Kerrey said: "It's probably not something that appeals to him, but I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama, and that his father was a Muslim and that his paternal grandmother is a Muslim. There's a billion people on the planet that are Muslims, and I think that experience is a big deal."

It was a sneaky way of playing the foreign card -- and it had the effect of reminding us that the practice of exploiting ethnocentrism to score political points isn't exclusive to Republicans.

Yet over the last two years right wingers have turned fear-mongering into an art form. The birther movement, which suggests that Obama was actually born in Kenya and thus not eligible to serve as a president, is all about playing the foreign card and making the first black president second-class by claiming he's not a citizen.

The same goes for the more recent but equally far-fetched assertion by conservative thinker Dinesh D'Souza that, as president, Obama is somehow channeling the "anti-colonial" spirit of his dead Kenyan father.

That would be the same father Obama hardly knew because he abandoned the family when his son was just a boy. Besides, Obama was raised by his white grandparents in Hawaii and later went to college and graduate school in the Ivy League. Why not assume he learned his values there?

It's because that assumption doesn't let D'Souza tap into this fear of the foreign -- an anxiety that liberals and conservatives alike have been willing to exploit to serve their own ends.

Both parties play the foreign card, and both have had it played against them. It's time to remove it from the deck, and reacquaint ourselves with something you don't see much of in politics these days: decency.

Copyright 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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