Somewhere deep in the Republican National Committee’s offices, warning klaxons went off on Super Bowl Sunday. By the next evening, they were clanging incessantly.
At least they should have been.
Why? Coke’s “America the Beautiful” commercial. The ad itself was innocuous enough: a collection of striking people in equally striking settings singing the titular song in seven different languages. But the response it triggered from a number of high-profile conservative media personalities is a sign the GOP has wandered into a political minefield.
Here’s a sampling. Glenn Beck, the Tea Party’s id, called it an “in-your-face ad” meant to “divide us politically.” Why? “If you don’t like it, you’re a racist. And if you do like it, you’re for immigration.” On Twitter, other media personalities put it more bluntly. Todd Starnes of Fox News Radio translated the ad this way: “Coca Cola is the official soft drink of illegals crossing the border.” And radio host Laura Ingraham explained her discomfiture even more bluntly. “But illegals will learn English, right @RepPaulRyan? …#EnglishFirst.”
If you’re wondering how we got from a saccharine soda spot to an immigration culture war, you’re not alone. There’s a certain agility and audacity required to pull off such a move. It’s the triple-axel of logical leaps: Even when they don’t quite stick the landing, it’s still a bit awe-inspiring to watch them try.
Such pretzeled logic is tough to take seriously, but it comes with real consequences. Not only did the right’s reaction make conservatives seem out of touch (anger and cynicism were not common emotional responses to the ad) but it suggested their opposition to immigration reform comes not from political principle or pragmatism, but rather from a deep discomfort with people who are different from them.
It’s the immigration analogue to the “war on women” trope of 2012. Remember how that started? Republicans believed they had found a winning argument against health care reform in the contraception mandate. Carefully framing the mandate as government interference with religious freedom, Republicans positioned themselves as the guardians of individual liberties.
Enter Rush Limbaugh. The moment he called Sandra Fluke “a slut” and demanded her sex tapes, Republicans went from the vanguard of religious liberty to the rearguard of reproductive regulations. While most Republican politicians supported the right of men and women to access contraception, there was always one or two presidential candidates willing to tackle “the dangers of contraception in this country.” The GOP kept trying to pivot back to religious liberties, but a few comments about “legitimate rape” had a way of shutting that whole thing down.
That same danger lurks in the immigration fight now mounting within the Republican Party. At the moment, GOP leaders are attempting to turn the debate about immigration into a referendum on Obama’s trustworthiness. “There’s widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws,” John Boehner said Friday, “And it’s going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes.” It’s a savvy move, since polls show around 50 percent of voters no longer believe Obama is trustworthy.
As the Fluke controversy demonstrated, though, the terms of debate can change in an instant. So long as the GOP is wed to conservative media, the over-the-top responses of right-wing media personalities threaten to undo Republicans’ strategy. If conservative media’s response to the Coke commercial is any guide, Republicans should be prepared for the immigration debate to devolve into the “war on immigrants” any day now.