Can we take a look at your calves?

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Steve King Won't Be GOP's Sister Souljah

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Republican Representative Steve King is trying to do for his party's aspiring presidential field what he's already done for its congressional wing: cover it in the neon hues of his own blazing intolerance.

Last spring, the House Republican leadership was searching for a way out of its immigration cul-de-sac, hoping to signal something other than hostility to undocumented immigrants. Some Republican legislators sought to add a provision to a defense authorization bill that would have enabled "Dreamers," the undocumented immigrants who migrated to the U.S. as children, to gain permanent legal residency after enlisting in the U.S. military. The implicit deal was obvious: serve your country, gain a permanent place in it.

King would have none of it. “As soon as they raise their hand and say ‘I’m unlawfully present in the United States,’ we’re not going take your oath into the military, but we’re going to take your deposition and we have a bus for you to Tijuana," King said.

In the ensuing months, King didn't just destroy Speaker John Boehner's hapless efforts to steer an immigration agenda, he seized ownership of the issue. King's stand on 11 million undocumented immigrants -- deport them all -- is now the de-facto House Republican position.

This weekend, a parade of Republican presidential hopefuls travels to King's Iowa Freedom Summit to pay homage. The cast is not restricted to fringe figures, such as Senator Ted Cruz or retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Scott Walker of Wisconsin are also scheduled to attend.

It promises to be a dismal scene. In addressing immigration, King has previously ruminated on dog breeding -- the U.S., he said, has "the pick of the litter" of global immigrants -- and suggested that hordes of undocumented immigrants have calves the "size of cantaloupes" from hauling marijuana across the border. This week he combined policy and antipathy in a single tweet, lamenting that a "deportable" was invited to accompany First Lady Michelle Obama at the State of the Union address.

It's unclear if King is an unrepentant bigot or merely plays one on TV. (Interviewed in the New York Times, King "was quick to point out that 'I never talk about race, that for me it’s always about the Constitution and the rule of law.'”) But it's equally clear that it doesn't matter. In either case, much of the Republican presidential pack has opted to join King in chasing after the nativist vote.

In the Washington Post, Paul Waldman asked if there is a single Republican capable of pulling a "Sister Souljah moment" out of the Iowa ether. It seems unlikely. To their credit, both Mitt Romney, whose "self-deportation" advice for immigrants now counts as Republican moderation, and Jeb Bush, whose empathy for undocumented immigrants is forcefully at odds with the party base, are avoiding Iowa this weekend. But neither man seems inclined to use the occasion to denounce King's ugly, impractical and destructive politics.

The nativists, reactionaries and cranks long ago stopped being a manageable fringe in the Republican Party; they're now too numerous and powerful for other conservatives to battle out in the open. With demographics and reason forming a pincer movement on the right flank of conservative dogma, at some point the long, tragic slide of the Republican Party will end. But it won't be this weekend.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net