If the Daily were a person, it’d have egg all over its face right about now.

Jess Cox

As today’s front page explains, an editing error led a story in Tuesday’s Daily (College Dems, Republicans gear up for election season, 09/12/2006) to report incorrectly that an intern hired by the Republican National Committee, Morgan Wilkins, was planning two rather shocking events to recruit young voters to her cause. Wilkins, who suggested a “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day” and a “Fun with Guns” event where students could use a BB gun or paintball gun to shoot at cardboard cutouts of Democratic senators, actually worked for the College Republican National Committee, not RNC Chair Ken Mehlman’s better-known organization.

The Daily’s news section screwed this up, badly. I shudder to think what will happen next time Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean – who sent a letter to Mehlman, based on our erroneous report, to denounce the supposed RNC activities – receives a resume from some former Daily staffer.

But the error wasn’t that severe; all that happened was that the word “College” was deleted from the name of Wilkin’s actual employer. Though a CRNC spokesman interviewed by The Associated Press was quick to point out that Wilkins was an “independent contractor” and that her activities were not authorized, he didn’t deny that the group hired her. And though the University of Michigan College Republicans were happy to distance themselves from Wilkin’s ideas after Tuesday’s story, she stood behind their table at Festifall – which is where she described the activities she was thinking about to a Daily reporter.

Editing glitch aside, the fact remains that an individual on the payroll of a national Republican organization thought that taking potshots, literally, at cutouts of Democratic leaders like Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) and Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) was an bright idea, that there wouldn’t be anything wrong with awarding a prize to the lucky vigilante student who finds a volunteer “illegal immigrant” hiding on campus.

Now, young people – of whatever political persuasion – are often more fervent and less guarded in their beliefs than their more responsible elders. They’re likely to appreciate extremes that older, wiser folks might recognize are a bit too far out of the mainstream for comfort. Truth be told, there might be a few Democrats on this campus who would enjoy a “Fun with Guns” event with cardboard figures of the Bush Administration – if my lefty comrades weren’t so gun-shy.

Republicans, though, currently have a monopoly on appeals to racism and xenophobia, coded or otherwise.

I’m sure that despite her seeming lapse of judgment, Wilkins is a skilled organizer – otherwise, the chair of the Michigan State University College Republicans wouldn’t have sent out a press release yesterday defending her. But she can’t claim the honor of thinking up “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day.” The Young Conservatives of Texas organization at the University of North Texas held such a day in 2005, handing out candy bars to those students lucky enough to capture an “illegal immigrant.” College Republicans at Penn State planned to do the same earlier this year, though public outcry convinced them to change their plans.

If “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day” is too controversial outside Texas, perhaps that’s only because it’s a bit too direct in its appeal to a brand of xenophobia that isn’t quite fit for polite discussion nowadays. Republicans know, however, that they can fire up enthusiasm in a certain percentage of white voters by appealing covertly to their lingering racist and xenophobic beliefs.

That’s not to say Democrats have a clean history in this arena. Segregationist Democrats, probably more than any other factor, long delayed federal civil rights legislation.

But after former President Richard Nixon rolled out the “Southern Strategy” for Republicans to go after the votes of racist whites by promoting states’ rights – and after racists like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, both originally Democrats, switched parties – the Republicans cornered the market on racism. As the dispute within the Republican Party over exactly how hard-line of a position to take on immigration has shown, the party has been, if anything, too successful in attracting the support of those who wish dark-skinned immigrants would just stay home.

Ignoring for the moment the moral aspects of Republican ties to intolerance, it’s a politically stupid move in the long term. As the country has become more diverse and less blatantly racist, being perceived as the defenders of America the Lily White has become a liability for Republicans. The party’s efforts to reach out to minority voters can charitably be described as pathetic.

The Daily made a significant mistake this week. The Republicans, however, made a far larger one decades ago, and it will likely take them decades more to recover.

Zbrozek can be reached at zbrozek@michigandaily.com. As editorial page editor, he is not involved in decisions concerning the news section.

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