Politics & Policy

John McCain, Un-Unleashed

Has this man been watching too much Lou Dobbs?

West Palm Beach, Fla. — It was during John McCain’s answer to a second question about immigration at a town-hall meeting here Thursday, that I began to wonder what McCain would have thought had he known a couple of years ago what he’d be saying on the campaign trail now.

Certainly back then he would have been shocked to know he’d be playing to voters who want to pardon the border agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean, while extolling the virtues of a border wall, and speaking in detail about what sections of the border need what sort of fencing. It’s not hard to imagine the McCain of a yore thinking the current McCain needs a good dose of “straight talk.”

But McCain is, within reason, saying what he thinks he needs to say to win. If the Arizona senator on the campaign trail in 2000 was “McCain unleashed,” spraying straight talk at conservatives as if daring them to deny him the nomination, now he is “McCain un-unleashed,” restraining himself to stay just on the right side of the constituencies he knows from bitter experience can deny him the nomination again.

When the immigration questioner got up and asked about the right-wing cause of pardoning Ramos and Compean (I’ve written about the case here), McCain very gingerly took the typical politician’s “we need more information” dodge: “There is an investigation that should be completed very soon about those border guards. We have asked — all of us in Congress — have asked for them to proceed with a full investigation. And frankly we are not sure that it would be soon. I’ll get back to you, if you’d like.” A year ago, wouldn’t McCain have basically told this guy to go to hell?

The questioner had a second part to his question, about what McCain would do to build the wall. McCain was emphatic that in “urban areas…where there is population side by side, we’ve got to have walls.” He elaborated, though, that in “desert areas,” vehicle barriers, sensors, cameras, and unmanned aerial vehicles can do the job.

Earlier, in response to another immigration question (the first question he got right after his opening remarks), McCain had said “it is absolutely our obligation to secure our border. We must secure our borders first.” He explained that he favors a guest-worker program, but only with “biometric tamper-proof documents”: “Any employer who hires someone without those documents will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. And many of those people who therefore are here illegally will automatically leave. I also believe that we have to round up the two million people who have committed crimes in the country.”

Roundups, crackdowns, attrition, prosecution — that’s the new John McCain — with the door left open for some form of clemency for Ramos and Compean. Has this man been watching too much Lou Dobbs?

Between the lines, McCain says he still favors amnesty when he tells the audience that after the crackdown, everyone can sit down and work out a solution to the remaining illegal problem in keeping with our values. This is a perfectly reasonable position — if you believe that McCain would follow through on the enforcement in the first place.

In the brief economic part of his presentation, McCain is insistent, absolutely insistent, that the Bush tax cuts he voted against, and would still vote against today, be made permanent. It’s hard to imagine how he can say the word “permanent” much more in the course of a couple of sentences: “But I think, my friends, that’s what we should do, I think it’s very important, to keep the tax cuts permanent, make the tax cuts permanent. If we don’t do that, every family and business in America is going to see an increase in their taxes in 2010. So we need to keep the tax cuts permanent.”

When McCain is asked by an admiring and sincere questioner whether he welcomes the label “moderate,” you can see McCain identifying the trap — although it’s not meant as one — and carefully stepping around it. He allows that “I kind of resent labels,” but “I am a conservative.”

When asked after the event by a member of the media about the criticism he gets from Rush Limbaugh, McCain is again very diplomatic. It’s as if he’s a foreign-service officer who has been sent to the State Department to interact with this distant country known as “movement conservatism,” and he’s going to watch his every word. “I respect Rush Limbaugh. He is a voice that is respected by a lot of people who are in our party. I’ve been trying to convince everybody that I am the most qualified [to be president].”

And trying to convince conservatives that they should accept him. It wasn’t long ago that he would have thought the mere effort beneath him.

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