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New McCain Ad Angers GOP Base, Recalls Reversals on Immigration

July 11, 2008

Just days after stepping on the third rail of American politics with his proclamation that Social Security is "an absolute disgrace," John McCain may once again have stepped in it on the immigration issue. His new ad praising the contributions of Hispanic-Americans, titled "God's Children," has much of the conservative blogosphere frothing at the mouth. Meanwhile, the imbroglio will only serve to once again highlight McCain's just-in-time reversals on the comprehensive immigration reform he once advocated.
McCain's new spot is an excerpt from a June 2007 Republican debate in which he takes to task his GOP rivals (led by Colorado's Tom Tancredo) for their xenophobic immigrant bashing. Lauding the contributions of Hispanic American soldiers in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, McCain asks the audience to "remember that these are God's children" that his competitors are using as rhetorical punching bags:

"When you go to Iraq or Afghanistan today, you're going to see a whole lot of people who are of Hispanic background. You're even going to meet some of the few thousand that are still green card holders who are not even citizens of this country, 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."

Unfortunately, McCain's outreach to Hispanic voters (among whom he badly trails Barack Obama by 62% to 28%) isn't sitting well with the conservative echo chamber online. Hot Air's Ed Morrissey deemed McCain's spot a "monumentally stupid ad," a viewpoint shared by the National Review's Jim Geraghty. Claiming the ad "insults the intelligence of the people whom McCain is trying to woo," Morrissey sees a slap in the face to his allies on the right:

"Unfortunately, this sounds now like a deliberate provocation to the Right, who in fairness have never - never - discounted the contributions of Hispanic citizens and legal residents, especially not their long history of service to this nation. The issue is illegal immigration and border security, not whether we know that Americans of Hispanic descent have risked and given their lives for us."

For all of their whining, as Geraghty himself suggests, McCain's may still resonate with Hispanic voters. What it will almost certainly accomplish, though, is to provide the 43 million Hispanic voters in the United States with a fresh reminder about the virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric that has taken over the Republican Party. As for the rest of the American electorate, McCain's latest efforts to court Latino voters will only serve to highlight the Arizona Senator's gymnastic contortions on the illegal immigration issue.
No doubt, over the past five years, McCain's path on immigration reform has been circuitous, even circular. In 2003, he proclaimed "I think we can set up a program where amnesty is extended to a certain number of people who are eligible." During Senate debate over issue in September 2006, McCain praised his colleagues who "rejected the argument for an 'enforcement first' strategy that focuses on border security only, an ineffective and ill-advised approach."
But after being pummeled by his Republican presidential opponents and conservative primary voters who helped torpedo his Senate immigration reform bill, John McCain in 2007 underwent a conversion on the road to the GOP nomination. As the ultra-right Washington Times noted in January 2008:

The Arizona Republican now says that, in the wake of last summer's defeat of "comprehensive immigration reform," he has "gotten the message" that the border must be secured before the status of illegals already in the United States can be dealt with.

McCain testified to his dramatic turnabout on comprehensive immigration reform during a January 30, 2008 GOP debate. As ThinkProgress recounted, McCain announced he would not vote for his own bill today:

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 won and the need to quickly move to the electoral center now a pressing priority, McCain reversed himself yet again. Speaking to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in June, McCain pledged that if elected, he would make immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for illegal residents "my top priority." But the confusion and conflicting promises in McCain's tightrope walk on immigration were on display in that same speech:

"Many Americans, with good cause, did not believe us when we said we would secure our borders, and so we failed in our efforts. We must prove to them that we can and will secure our borders first."

No doubt, Hispanic voters in particular and the American electorate in general can be forgiven for concluding that John McCain is a craven opportunist when it comes to his one-time signature domestic issue of immigration reform. As for the fuming hard liners in his own party, they are left to grouse that "he hates conservatives."
UPDATE: In a conference call with reporters today, McCain surrogate Mel Martinez amazingly claimed his man never waivered on the immigration issue, "Far from him running away from the issue during the primary as is it falsely and shamelessly claimed, in fact he stood tall during that time."

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

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