The Don Young “wetbacks” incident offers an object lesson about the dramatically different levels of credibility and attention so often afforded the same member of Congress inside the Capitol versus out in the actual world.
The sea captain’s face and craggy voice of Alaska’s solitary House member was all over the cable news networks Friday because he used one of the most universally disdained racial epithets available for disparaging Hispanic migrant workers. “We used to have 50 to 60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes” on the California ranch where he grew up, Young said in an interview with a radio station back home about the role of technology in advancing economic development. “It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It's all done by machine.”
The comment became an instant national story and a hot topic on social media for several obvious reasons. Young is the second-longest-serving Republican in the House, one of only three whose tenure dates to the 1970s, which means he can be credibly called an elder statesman for the GOP. In the world of Washington coverage, any provocative sound bite from a lawmaker has a better chance to make air on a slow news day when Congress is in recess.
Beyond that, what Young said fits squarely into a main narrative about Republicans, which is that they’re struggling to live up to the obvious political mandate to win over more Latinos — in part because so many of them remain hostile to an immigration overhaul that would legitimize the millions who swam across the Rio Grande in search of work.
And, on top of all that, Young has perpetuated the story by reacting to the broadcast of his remark with comments that sounded much more like a rationalization than an apology.
The slur “was commonly used during my days growing up,” he said. “I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays and I meant no disrespect.” He also added that “migrant workers play an important role in America's workforce, and earlier in the said interview, I discussed the compassion and understanding I have for these workers and the hurdles they face in obtaining citizenship. America must once and for all tackle the issue of immigration reform."
But that part of the comment is getting almost no notice because of the unrepentant nature of his statement — which reinforces the way Young is widely perceived, and increasingly given a very wide berth, by his colleagues in Congress. His comments on both national policy and internal caucus deliberations are rarely seen as persuasive within the GOP Conference, where the leadership has come to regard his vote as being as cantankerously unreliable as his rhetoric is unhelpfully bombastic.
Under inside-the-Capitol circumstances, Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, would probably have been able to ignore what Young said as just another provocatively out-of-bounds comment from a caucus outsider who long ago slipped from being a two-committee-chairman legislative force to only a not-very-effective rhetorical warrior. That’s because other members, in both parties, view the bark in the self-described “alpha wolf” of Alaska politics as hardly more effective than his bite.
But after Democrats pounced today — “It is deeply disheartening that in 2013, we are forced to have a discussion about a member of Congress using such hateful words and racial slurs,” said Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Rubén Hinojosa of Texas — Boehner was compelled to respond: “Young’s remarks were offensive and beneath the dignity of the office he holds. I don’t care why he said it — there’s no excuse and it warrants an immediate apology.”
The speaker’s admonition is reminiscent of the way many top Republicans reacted last summer, when they realized that the out-there conservative rhetoric they had come to brush off from then-Missouri Rep. Todd Akin had gone national and could cost them a Senate seat. They were totally unable then to square their in-house perception of Akin as an oddity with the public’s perception of him as an outrage.
It’s very unlikely to work with Don Young now.