W ASHINGTON — As lawmakers put the finishing touches on an immigration deal, veteran Rep. Don Young decided this would be a good time to come out with an immigration plan of his own. His involves calling Latino immigrants “wetbacks.”
For Young, now in his 41st year in the House, Operation Wetback quickly became Operation Red Backside.
With commendable speed, Republican leaders denounced the Alaskan for remarking in a radio interview last week that when he was a boy in California, his father “used to hire 50 to 60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes” on his farm.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, fired off a statement saying that “slurs” such as Young’s “do nothing to elevate our party.”
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio termed Young’s phrasing “offensive and beneath the dignity of the office he holds.”
As lashes kept coming — from Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and others — the 79-year-old lawmaker issued not one but two apologies.
First, he said that he “meant no disrespect” in using “a term that was commonly used during my days growing up on a farm in central California” — true, but unhelpful. When that didn’t suffice, he groveled: “I apologize for the insensitive term I used. … That word, and the negative attitudes that come with it, should be left in the 20th century.”
Republican leaders may wish that Young had been left in the 20th century. But their public anguish over his slur could be an encouraging sign: Are they finally willing to stand up to offensive elements in and around the party?
It’s not time to award any medals of courage. But there seems to be a growing if self-interested recognition that intolerance is doing the GOP, and conservatism, real damage.
As party leaders were flagellating Young, a similar controversy bubbled up in Michigan, where state Republican National Committeeman Dave Agema posted an article on Facebook condemning “filthy” homosexuals for allegedly having higher rates of murder and disease.
But instead of ignoring the offense, a group of young Republicans in Michigan blew the whistle on Agema and started a campaign to oust him from his post. Bobby Schostak, the state GOP chairman, issued a statement saying the party’s support for traditional marriage “should never be allowed nor confused with any form of hate or discrimination toward anyone.”
One county GOP chairman called Agema’s posts “disgusting,” and Priebus issued a statement to Time saying that “all human beings deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”
It would be premature to say that the party of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock has fundamentally changed; conservatives appear likely to nominate Rep. Steve King of Iowa, an anti-immigration hard-liner and all-around bomb-thrower, to be their GOP Senate candidate in Iowa next year.
But there are hopeful signs: Fox News Channel has dropped Sarah Palin, Bill O’Reilly criticized opponents of same-sex marriage as Bible-thumpers, and even the much-feared Rush Limbaugh has come in for criticism on the right. Conservative commentator S.E. Cupp recently condemned Limbaugh’s “crazy and stupid and dangerous” attack last year on birth-control activist Sandra Fluke as a “slut,” and Republican former congressman Joe Scarborough blamed Limbaugh and Fox News Channel for Republicans’ poor electoral fortunes.
Admittedly, Cupp and Scarborough work for MSNBC, but Limbaugh appears to be getting the message — in his own way. Two weeks ago, he misinterpreted new Beyonce lyrics as sending a message that “she married the rich guy” and “now understands it’s worth it to bow down” to her husband. The next day, he told listeners: “The news is out that of course I’m back into my misinge — , m — , m — , well, misoge — , right, right, whatever it is.”
Misogyny. Limbaugh may not be able to pronounce it but, fortunately, some fellow conservatives are now calling out those who pronounce on “sluts,” “wetbacks” and “filthy” gays.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter@Milbank.