Durbin and Trump: Men of Their Words

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Durbin and Trump: Men of Their Words
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Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer says he believes Dick Durbin, the Illinois senator who emerged from a White House meeting on immigration and ran to the media complaining that President Trump used coarse language to describe Haiti, El Salvador, and various unnamed African countries.

Although that sounds like Trump, there are reasons for skepticism. For starters, as some Republicans present pointed out, Durbin has a record of unreliability when snitching on White House meetings. Five years ago, he claimed in a Facebook post that during tense negotiations over a looming budget shutdown, “one GOP House leader” told President Obama, “I cannot even stand to look at you.”

This didn’t sound remotely like Rep. Eric Cantor, presumably the man Durbin was referring to, and both Cantor and House Speaker John Boehner denied that anyone made such a comment -- and denounced Durbin for saying so. White House officials sided authoritatively with the Republicans. “It did not happen,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters bluntly.

Asked to apologize, Durbin refused, even though he wasn’t present at the meeting. So that’s one thing. Here’s another: The second-highest-ranking Senate Democrat has a track record of sounding tin-eared and hyper-partisan -- and can be counted on the play the race card. When Loretta Lynch, the Obama administration’s choice to head the Justice Department, wasn’t fast-tracked for confirmation, Durbin declared on the Senate floor that “the first African-American woman nominated to be attorney general is asked to sit in the back of the bus.”

In 2005, he repeated a stupid joke about why President Lincoln might have been Jewish (“His name was Abraham and he was shot in the temple”). In 2012, asked why the Democrats had removed the words “God” and “Jerusalem” from the party platform, Durbin lashed out at Fox News for merely mentioning it.

During last year’s confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, Durbin asked the nominee whether “we should condemn or congratulate” an Oxford professor named John Finnis for lamenting the decline of the “purity” of white European culture. Not only did Durbin mischaracterize Finnis’ research, but the question had a guilt-by-association aspect to it: Finnis was one of Gorsuch’s college professors.

Then there was the time Durbin compared the U.S. treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo to atrocities committed by “Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime -- Pol Pot or others -- that had no concern for human beings." 

Specious analogies aside, Donald Trump has greater credibility issues than Durbin, not to mention his own trove of racially insensitive remarks -- and even dumber historical references. So, the president is not easily defended or believed. For the record, Trump (sort of) denied Durbin’s claims. He insisted he never said anything derogatory about Haitians, while implying that Durbin deliberately misconstrued the context of his comments. Two other Republicans in the room, Tom Cotton and David Perdue, backed Trump up, to the degree that they told people privately that the president had used a slightly less vulgar term than the one Durbin made famous.

For their trouble, they were attacked by Schumer. “To impugn @SenatorDurbin’s integrity is disgraceful,” Schumer tweeted, while impugning the integrity of Cotton and Perdue. That’s really the point here. This entire episode illustrates what’s wrong with U.S. politics today, and it’s why a loose-lipped reality television show host was elected president in the first place. During what was supposed to be a negotiation over immigration policy, a lawmaker from the opposition party rushed before the cameras to claim the president had used “hate-filled, vile, and racist language.”

Even if one takes Durbin’s account at face value, it seems that he wasn’t really trying to negotiate. Instead, he was attempting to bait Trump, and it may have worked. Durbin also says he confronted Trump and the Republicans over the use of their phrase “chain migration” to describe U.S. laws giving preference to family members of recent immigrants. “I said to the president: 'Do you realize how painful that term is to so many people?’” Durbin said. “African-Americans believe that they migrated to America in chains, and when you speak about chain migration, it hurts them personally.’”

This is an esoteric complaint -- wordplay, really -- more akin to Durbin’s “temple” pun about Lincoln than a serious objection. A president elected, in part, because he thumbed his nose at political correctness responded accordingly. According to Durbin’s account, Trump replied, “Oh, that’s a good line.”

Liberals of good faith do wince at the phrase “chain migration,” however. They believe it pejoratively describes a noble goal of the law, which was fashioned in 1965. Titled the Immigration and Nationality Act, it was the first of many major legislative victories of Ted Kennedy. It made “family reunification” the cornerstone of U.S. immigration policy. Its effects were profound. Until then, a system based on country-by-country quotas and job skills favored immigrants from Western Europe and Mexico. Kennedy’s measure changed all that, and over the next five decades, America opened its doors much wider to Asian and African countries and the rest of Latin America.  

It changed the face of our country: Half a century ago, some 10 million foreign-born people resided here. Today, that figure is closer to 40 million. Is this a good thing? I happen to think so, but that’s what Democrats and Republicans are supposed to be discussing. It’s an adult conversation, or should be, with many facets to it.

Is it time to slow the rate of immigration? If so, what criteria should be used? How many of the estimated 11 million souls who came here without proper papers should be made to return? What rights, if any, do those brought here as minors have? What about those who have served in the U.S. military? Tough questions, to be sure, but if our elected officials don’t want to engage them in a serious way, we need better elected officials.

Yes, it’s hard to imagine a less productive way to jump-start the discussion than comparing the home countries of these people to outhouses, as Trump apparently did. Meanwhile, his Democratic opponents believe that calling Trump a racist is a productive response. That may be true -- but only if your goal is winning elections, not enacting positive policy changes. Which raises the question of why Democrats even care if they prevail on Election Day. What do they even want power for?

More than 10 years ago, Ted Kennedy took the lead in fashioning an immigration deal with George W. Bush that would have given most illegal immigrants -- not just “Dreamers” -- a path to citizenship. At the last minute, Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan, apparently at the behest of organized labor, tossed a “poison pill” amendment in the hopper. It was designed to upset the delicately crafted coalition needed to pass it. Kennedy begged his party’s leadership not to go there, but they did. By a one-vote margin, Dorgan’s poison pill did its work, and the moment was lost.

Among those who voted to keep immigration as an issue to beat up Republicans – instead of enacting a new law that would help Dreamers remain in America -- were both U.S. senators from the Land of Lincoln: Barack Obama and Dick Durbin.  

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.



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