New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s original plan to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants should have been an example of practical and modest good government. It had nothing to do with “amnesty,” pathways to citizenship, border control, guest workers or employer sanctions; it merely attempted, in the absence of rational federal immigration policy, to guarantee a competent and insured driver behind the wheel of every New York car. As a matter of public safety, it garnered the dry-eyed support of nonpartisans like the New York State Catholic Conference, the New York Times and former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, as well as the libertarian Cato Institute. Similar plans have been implemented in eight states, including New Mexico, Oregon and Maryland. So what happened on the road to the DMV?

Many factors doomed Spitzer’s effort, his squandered political capital among them. His compromise plan–to create three levels of licenses, one of which would have been the federal Real ID–pleased nobody. But mostly, his proposal came undone in the maelstrom of intense pressure from conservatives, lackluster support from progressives, right-wing nativism and the distorting glare of the 2008 presidential campaign. Its demise may be a harbinger of ugly politics to come.

From the moment Spitzer announced his proposal, Lou Dobbs and his shock-jock clones on drive-time radio launched a vicious smear campaign. Dobbs characterized the plan as a sanctuary program for 9/11 terrorists. New York State Assembly minority leader James Tedisco asserted that “somewhere in a cave with his den of thieves and terrorists” Osama bin Laden was celebrating with champagne. Monroe County Republicans distributed a flier of a turbaned man with an assault rifle slung over his shoulder under the headline Democrat County Legislators Want to Make It Easier for Illegals and Terrorists to Get Driver’s Licenses!

It is disturbing that so few progressives were prepared to tackle such crass fearmongering and racism. Indeed, Hillary Clinton’s tacit embrace, then equivocation, then ultimate rejection of Spitzer’s plan turned it into a political hot potato, one discussed in terms of “electoral math” and “gotcha” politics rather than its merits. At the Democratic presidential debate in Nevada, home to 200,000 undocumented immigrants, CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer broached the topic only to turn it into a squabble over whether Clinton had engaged in the “politics of parsing.” When Blitzer finally got to the issue itself, he demanded a yes-or-no answer–much to the chagrin of Barack Obama (yes) and John Edwards (no), who engaged in plenty of parsing themselves.

At best such a framework turns the issue of driver’s licenses into a proxy for the unsettled and complex issue of national immigration reform. At worst it makes a conversation on immigration almost impossible. Who will fill the service, agrarian and high-tech jobs upon which the economy depends? Should workers in the most dangerous and difficult jobs be cut off from basic labor protections? Considering our growing economic anxieties, how should progressives seek to reform immigration so that the standards of all workers are lifted?

These are but some of the questions that merit discussion, not as a means of triangulating or courting the Hispanic vote but as a matter of fairness and principle. Progressives can begin by opposing the Real ID Act, which contains anti-immigrant provisions. Since many Democrats feel vulnerable on immigration, those in safe seats can and should take the lead on fair and humane reforms. Most important, progressives should frame immigration as a moral issue, not merely a political one. Any expansion of American citizenship to excluded minorities–such as African-Americans or women–has always been hard-fought. It took courage and vision to make the unlikely and unpopular seem a matter of common sense and justice. It will this time, too.