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Now the immigration debate is really getting juicy. Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, has always been a bit of a melon head, but he outdid himself in an interview that came to light this week in which he described “DREAMers” — people brought to this country illegally as children — as misshapen drug mules. “For every one who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there that — they weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” the honorable gentleman said.
Cantaloupe calves? This was a rotten tomato tossed at Latinos, who were already suspicious of Republicans before the insult was added to the injury of House conservatives such as King blocking action on bipartisan immigration legislation.
“Hateful,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
“Inexcusable,” said Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
King kept on throwing. “It’s not something that I’m making up,” he told Radio Iowa on Tuesday evening, hours after a Democrat who had discovered the recent interview with Newsmax read the offending comments aloud at a congressional hearing. “We have people that are mules, that are drug mules, that are hauling drugs across the border and you can tell by their physical characteristics what they’ve been doing for months, going through the desert with 75 pounds of drugs on their back. And if those who advocate for the DREAM Act, if they choose to characterize this about valedictorians, I gave them a different image.”
King certainly gave his colleagues a different image: that of a Republican Party driven into extinction in coming decades because it antagonized what is becoming the most important voting bloc. Even his usual conservative partners moved to isolate him.
“Irresponsible and reprehensible,” Rep. Raul Labrador (Idaho) said at a luncheon gathering with reporters called Conversations with Conservatives. “I think what he said was out of touch with the [GOP] conference.”
In lieu of a defense of King, Labrador scolded the assembled journalists for their reporting on King’s out-of-his-gourd remark but not the favorable things other Republicans say about immigrants. “Shame on you. Shame on the media,” he lectured. “Make sure that your article talks about what every Republican said,” Labrador proposed, “not what one outlier said.”
This is similar to scolding the media for focusing on the one plane that crashes and not giving equal attention to all the planes that land safely. More to the point, it’s not at all clear that King is such an outlier.
Certainly, his zany remarks are low-hanging fruit for journalists. Just last week, he got into a heated exchange with a Univision host who asked about a speech in which King likened immigrants to a litter of puppies. “You want a good bird dog?” he asked. “Pick the one that’s the friskiest. . . . You get the pick of the litter and you got yourself a pretty good bird dog. Well, we’ve got the pick of every donor civilization on the planet.”
But if Republicans think King is a fruitcake, they don’t show it on the House floor, where last month they approved, along party lines, an amendment King offered that would force the Obama administration to resume deportation of the DREAMers who immigrated as children. “If this position holds, no amnesty will reach the president’s desk,” the congressman said in a celebratory statement after the vote.
And King’s position is holding. Boehner, responding to House conservatives, is refusing to take up the Senate legislation. Because he has chosen a strategy of passing legislation through the House without Democratic votes, the speaker can’t afford to lose more than a handful of Republicans. This empowers “outliers” such as King.
“The reason we’re in a bottleneck here in Congress is because of a few like him,” Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-Tex.), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, told me Wednesday afternoon at a caucus event outside the Capitol. “Evidently there’s enough to be able to force the speaker of the House to stall and not be able to do this immigration reform.”
Republicans say their objections to the immigration bill have nothing to do with racial or ethnic discrimination, and that’s surely the case for most of them. But King makes it easy for Democrats to tar the Republicans with sinister motives. Rep. Ben Luján (D-N.M.), one of several speakers denouncing King on the House floor Wednesday, said his slur shows why “the American people continue to see House Republicans as out of touch.”
That’s not quite fair. But when one of their own is talking about cantaloupe calves, Republicans aren’t in a strong position to complain about cherry-picking.
DANA MILBANK is a political reporter for The Washington Post and has authored two books on national political campaigns and the national political parties.