A driver’s license by any other name

The give-and-take at the Democratic presidential debate in Philadelphia last week finally looked as though the candidates might drill down to display their differences.

The buildup was there. Barack Obama had said the week before he was going to take off the gloves. Perhaps because NBC and MSNBC, with Drexel University, sponsored the event, those news people felt they had a certain license to egg on the candidates.

Chris Matthews, on his “Hardball” program, delivered an oration saying what he thought Obama should say about Hillary Rodham Clinton. The straight-talking Matthews likes brawls out of the East Coast political-boss tradition.

Role-playing Obama, Matthews said, “Every vote she has cast, every word she has spoken says yes to the status quo. She voted to approve the war with Iraq. She just voted with the hawks to target Iran. She always seems to choose the safe boat.”

Then, on debate night, John Edwards delivered the lines that Matthews had spoken, almost word for word. But the “pile-on,” as the press called it, came after Tim Russert asked whether Clinton supported New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s driver’s-license proposal.

To her credit, Clinton — in what’s been widely attributed as skillful waffling — called it this way: By proposing to issue driver’s licenses that would be available to undocumented immigrants, Spitzer is in a touchy spot. He is in that position because Congress failed to pass immigration reform.

That sounds true enough.

Indeed, Spitzer is in a tough spot because the underlying issue in New York is really not about permits to drive. The issue being heatedly debated is not about access to the state’s public roadways after proving you understand the rules of the road and have auto insurance.

The issue is really coded language that screams: “Let’s run undocumented immigrants out of town.”

Eight states have already passed legislation somewhat similar to Spitzer’s proposed administrative policy change. His three-tier plan makes it possible for applicants to obtain a license with identification other than a Social Security card. It was refined following a meeting with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

All the details really don’t matter in the presidential race. Attention has been diverted from real concerns — war in Iraq, Afghanistan and maybe Iran. Matthews was even saying the next day on his program about how illegal immigration would overtake other issues as the major one after the two parties select their candidates.

In reality, the two issues are as different as cupcakes and a heart attack.

A majority of U.S. residents have long favored measures allowing undocumented immigrants to remain as permanent residents and eventual citizens or as temporary workers who go home at some point, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. When it had a chance, Congress failed to pass legislation along these lines.

That failure has helped create the perception that more people oppose an immigration solution than actually do. Paperless immigrants make a convenient scapegoat in light of that and other national failures.

Will denying undocumented immigrants a New York driver’s license capture Osama bin Laden? Will having more unlicensed, uninsured drivers capture whoever is responsible for the anthrax attacks?

There’s a game going on and the public needs to wise up to it.

What’s really taking place is an attempt by media stars to drive the national debate. The focus is less on public concerns and more about inciting raw emotion. The appeal to reason that the national political culture is founded on is slowly giving way to a sensationalist imprint. And the immigration issue is used as a chameleon made to fit the most recent fears — free trade, low wages, job shortages, war and terrorism.

What’s discouraging is how the broadcast-ratings game is now driving the priorities of the presidential debates with cheap shots.

This presidential season, the broadcast media look more and more like pro wrestling: phony, emotional and made to look real.

Where’s Walter Cronkite now that we really need him?

(Jose de la Isla, author of “The Rise of Hispanic Political Power,” writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail joseisla3(at)yahoo.com.)

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