It’s a cruel coincidence for GOP presidential aspirants that the Republican Party’s most uncensored, most influential anti-immigrant member (Representative Steve King) hails from a state (Iowa) where, for arbitrary reasons, presidential primary candidates face their first real electoral test. It means that top-tier Republicans like Senator Rand Paul have to break bread in public, more than a year ahead of the election, with someone they must be prepared to flee mid-meal, while still chewing. That's what happened Monday at a Paul fundraiser in Okoboji, Iowa.
If the Iowa caucuses were held on Super Tuesday, this probably wouldn’t have happened. But the caucuses are contest number one. So in addition to having to pretend to like butter sculptures, Paul and everyone else have to vie for King’s favor, which exposes them to the kinds of altercations they'd rather avoid ahead of the general election. Sticking up for the DREAMer in the video would plausibly doom Paul’s primary campaign. Standing with King would pose an equal but opposite threat in the general, as would playing dumb. So, he did what he had to do.
And it was a wise move. If he’d sat there stoically, it would’ve been tantamount to admitting he found King’s disposition toward these two deferred-action beneficiaries—who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents as minors—unremarkable. And to many Republicans, feigning surprise at an immigrant’s command of English and calling her a lawbreaker is unremarkable. As is the suggestion that children should refuse to travel with their parents absent proper authorization, or that they should self-deport once they grow up. It’s certainly unremarkable to the gentleman shouting “Go home!” at her (at the 6:30 mark). But most people don’t find these kinds of things particularly commendable.
Update: It's worth noting that part of the political logic driving Republicans' short-lived enthusiasm for immigration reform after the 2012 election was that it would take the issue off the table, and thus obviate combustible encounters like these. Paul voted against the Senate's immigration bill, and did nothing to encourage House Republicans to work with Democrats on a bill of their own.
Brian Beutler is a senior editor at The New Republic.