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John McCain Comes Full Circle on Immigration--Again

January 28, 2013

The new bipartisan immigration framework announced by the "Gang of 8" brought some great news for Mitt Romney. After he lost the Hispanic vote by 44 points in 2012 (up from just 9 in 2004), Senate Republicans have apparently concluded you can have illegals, for Pete's sake. But at least for now, you shouldn't compare the undocumented to dogs (Steve King) or goats (Trent Lott), suggest providing free condoms to Mexicans (Mark Kirk) or advocate the construction of an electrified border fence which will "kill you" (Herman Cain).
All of which means it's time for John McCain to change his position on immigration yet again.
Along with the late Ted Kennedy, Senator McCain in 2007 championed a comprehensive immigration reform bill that died at the hands of his Republican colleagues. Now, McCain told Martha Raddatz of ABC News on Sunday, he's ready to try again:

"It's not that much different from what we tried to do in 2007. Martha, what's changed is -- honestly, is that there is a new, I think, appreciation on both sides of the aisle -- including maybe more importantly on the Republican side of the aisle -- that we have to enact a comprehensive immigration reform bill."

As for what's driving that new Republican "appreciation," McCain pointed not to principle, but the GOPs recent ballot-box beat-down at the hands of Latino voters:

"Well, look, I'll give you a little straight talk. Look at the last election. Look at the last election. We are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote, which we think should be ours, for a variety of reasons, and we've got to understand that."

Unfortunately for McCain, Raddatz highlighted his gymnastic reversals on a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. "In 2005, you were for it," she pointed out, adding that "by 2010, you wanted border security first and, quote, "certainly no amnesty," so you're solidly behind a pathway to citizenship."
Raddatz could be forgiven for her skepticism. As a quick glance back shows, John McCain's stand on immigration issues has shifted with his political prospects and those of his Republican Party. As CNN's Dana Bash explained in April 2010:

"He used to be [in favor of comprehensive immigration reform], but not any more. In fact, if you look over the years, he has had various positions dealing with this. And it really depended on what election battle he was in at the time."

In 2003, years before he co-sponsored legislation with Ted Kennedy, John McCain was with President Bush in trying to win over Hispanic votes. And what was central to his vision ten years ago?

"Amnesty has to be an important part [of immigration reform] because there are people who have lived in this country for 20, 30 or 40 years, who have raised children here and pay taxes here and are not citizens."

As the arch-conservative Washington Times complained:

On the floor of the United States Senate in September of 2006, Sen. McCain praised that the Senate had "rejected the argument for an 'enforcement first' strategy that focuses on border security only, an ineffective and ill-advised approach." He went on to add that, "the only way to truly secure our border and protect our nation is through the enactment of comprehensive immigration reform." Mr. McCain added that a "piecemeal approach" could not "achieve any real results," and that Congress would be "sadly mistaken" to think so.

But as the 2008 Republican primaries approached, John McCain underwent a conversion on the road to Des Moines. With immigration the number one issue for hard-line conservatives dominating the early GOP primaries, McCain said "gotten the message" that the border must be secured before the status of illegals already in the United States can be dealt with. And as he put it during a January 5th, 2008 GOP candidates debate in New Hampshire:

"Let me just say, I've never supported amnesty.
A few nights ago, Joe Lieberman and I had a town hall meeting together. It was a rather unusual event. The issue came up. Joe Lieberman said, John McCain has never supported amnesty, and anybody says that he does is a liar, is lying."

By January 30, 2008, Senator McCain announced during another Republican debate that he no longer supported his own bill:

Q: At this point, if your original proposal came to a vote on the Senate floor, would you vote for it? [...]
McCAIN: No, I would not, because we know what the situation is today. The people want the borders secured first.

But with the Republican nomination won and the need to quickly move to the electoral center now a pressing priority, McCain reversed himself yet again. As the New York Times reported on May 22, 2008, "In yet another sign of his pivoting toward the general election, Senator John McCain said at a roundtable with business leaders here today that comprehensive immigration reform should be a top priority for the next president." Trailing Barack Obama by over 30 points among Hispanic voters by July, McCain to the dismay of his right-wing backers released an ad titled "God's Children" which praised Latino soldiers "who love this country so much that they're willing to risk their lives in its service in order to accelerate their path to citizenship and enjoy the bountiful, blessed nation." By mid-July, McCain was practically begging the National Council of La Raza:

"I do ask for your trust that when I say, I remain committed to fair, practical and comprehensive immigration reform, I mean it. I think I have earned that trust."

In November, Hispanic voters concluded otherwise, and voted for Barack Obama by a two-to-one margin (66 percent to 32 percent).
But McCain's transformation was far from finished. Facing a 2010 primary challenge from Tea Party favorite J.D. Hayworth, McCain continued his hard right turn. As Politifact recalled, McCain reversed his previous opposition to deploying National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexican border. Calling Arizona's draconian SB 1070 a "good tool," McCain denounced "the federal government's failure to carry out its responsibilities."
Alas, that was then and this is now. McCain easily secured reelection to the Senate in 2010. Since then, illegal immigration, along with the Republican share of the Hispanic vote, has plummeted. With his Republican Party still smarting from its ballot-box disaster in November, it's time for John McCain to switch positions--and his principles--again. As McCain explained to Newsweek in April 2010:

"I never considered myself a maverick."


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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