John McCain turns on a dime on immigration

Under pressure in his primary, the Arizona senator abandons previous positions, follows his political instincts

By Gabriel Winant
April 20, 2010 4:21PM (UTC)
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The Senate Armed Services Committee Republican ranking Republican Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., questions witnesses Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010, during the committee's hearing on the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) (AP)

When a relatively moderate Republican is facing a primary challenge from the GOP’s slavering, far-right base, it's usually pretty easy to empathize. Witnessing then-Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., or Pennsylvania's ex-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, fighting off Club for Growth fundamentalists on their right, it's fairly obvious who the bad guys are. (Sure, maybe they're all bad guys, and maybe liberals have strategic reasons to root for the unelectable challenger, but in the daily arguments of the campaign, Specter and Chafee still sounded better than their opponents.)

But watching Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., try to deal with his primary challenge this year, it's hard not to experience a little bit of righteous glee. The right wing of the Arizona Republican Party has never really made peace with McCain, and that unease has now solidified into a challenge for the Senate nomination, by former Rep. J.D. Hayworth. Under pressure, McCain has been ditching every aspect of his political persona that once made him, if not as remarkable as he thought himself to be, at least vaguely noteworthy.


First, he bizarrely denied ever having claimed the label of "maverick" for himself, in an effort to get away from the centrist reputation he carefully cultivated in the early 2000s. Now, McCain is running hard to the right on immigration, the signature issue on which he’s defied his party's conservatives, and which nearly ate alive his presidential campaign.

McCain yesterday praised a bill passed by the Arizona state Legislature that would authorize police officers to stop people "on reasonable suspicion" that they are undocumented immigrants, and ask to see valid identification. The governor is expected to sign it.

The bill bears a disturbing resemblance to the policies of the Jim Crow South (or the passbook rules of apartheid South Africa), as opponents have pointed out. At the very least, it is guaranteed to produce racial profiling. What else can "reasonable suspicion" mean in this case? Nor does the legislation's author, state Sen. Russell Pearce, exactly allay such concerns. In 2006 Pearce praised the mass deportations of the 1950s, known as "Operation Wetback." He also forwarded an e-mail to supporters -- supposedly by accident -- with a white supremacist attachment. The next year, he appeared in a photo with a man prominent in the neo-Nazi world, though Pearce said he was unaware of the man’s associations.


You’d think this might send up a red flag for a famously principled politician. Nonetheless, McCain described the bill as, "A very important step forward. I can fully understand why the legislature would want to act." The former presidential nominee has also just unveiled a plan with fellow Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl to use 3,000 National Guard troops to secure their state’s southern border. Asked McCain, "If you want to enact some other reforms, how can that be effective when you have a porous border?"

There's not much strategic concern for Democrats watching this race: whoever wins the primary is almost certain to win the general election. It's not as though a Hayworth victory means that President Obama will lose a valuable, cooperative ally on the other side of the aisle; McCain has been doing whatever he can to stick it to the guy who denied him the White House.

So it's safe for liberals to go ahead and root for Hayworth to finish dismantling what remains of McCain's reputation, with an assist from McCain himself. This guy has been turning on a dime and going with whatever feels easy and convenient for years now: nominating Sarah Palin for president, zigzagging from right to left, undermining whichever president defeated him most recently. It's the politics of pique. He was right -- he is no maverick.

Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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2010 Elections Immigration John Mccain R-ariz.