Politics & Policy

Has McCain Really Learned His Lesson on Immigration?

That depends on when you're listening.

Last October, when John McCain’s presidential campaign was nearly dead, I went to Iowa to follow him around for a few days.

The story felt like a eulogy. Few observers believed McCain could come back from the twin disasters of his campaign nearly running out of money and his disastrous stand on comprehensive immigration reform.

Riding in a van from Sioux City to Sheldon, I asked McCain what had gone wrong. “The biggest detriment to our campaign so far — by far — was the immigration issue, because it’s an emotional issue with our Republican base,” he told me.

“I can show you the polling numbers that it really didn’t have anything to do with the financial situation, that as the immigration issue became hotter and hotter among Republicans, I started down.”

“And it’s still out there.”

Boy, was that true. But McCain managed to survive. He won the nomination on the strength of his national security credentials, but he gave Republican base voters just enough reassurance on the immigration issue when he pledged to “secure the border first.”

McCain succeeded as a result of what might be called a legitimate flip-flop. After supporting comprehensive immigration reform, McCain got the word from voters, in no uncertain terms, that they wanted the borders secured before anything else. So McCain adopted a new mantra.

When we got to Sheldon, for a talk to a (very) small crowd at a Pizza Ranch restaurant, somebody brought up immigration. “We learned a message from the last debate,” McCain said. “The lesson is people want the border secure. They want the border secure. I got the message. The border has to be secure. And we have to do what’s necessary to secure our border, and then we can move on to other aspects of the problem.”

That was, or seemed like, straight talk. But that was the primary McCain. Now, we’re seeing the old McCain. He’s been talking about comprehensive immigration reform again lately, and he hasn’t been terribly careful about assuring audiences that the borders will be secured first, and only then will other aspects of reform go forward.

Take his appearance last week before the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. In prepared remarks, he spoke of securing the borders. But later, when asked whether comprehensive reform — not just border-securing enforcement — would be one of his top priorities in his first 100 days in office, McCain said: “It will be my top priority yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”

That didn’t really sound like securing the borders first.

McCain also made a gaffe when he pledged that “someone who comes here legally cannot have priority over someone who comes here illegally.” His staff assured me later that he meant it the other way around.

A few days earlier, in an interview with the Las Vegas Sun, McCain also brought up immigration, saying, “I haven’t won on every issue. I didn’t win on immigration reform, but I’ll go back at it. And I’m glad I did it.”

Glad he did it! If you want to see McCain at his most incorrigible, there it is. He took a stand on an issue that deeply divided his party, a stand that almost cost him the nomination, and that still causes him trouble with voters whose support he desperately needs today. And he’s glad he did it.

What was that about getting the message?

McCain was a bit more careful this week when he addressed the League of United Latin American Citizens. “Many Americans, with good cause, did not believe us when we said we would secure our borders, and so we failed in our efforts,” he said. “We must prove to them that we can and will secure our borders first, while respecting the dignity and rights of citizens and legal residents of the United States.”

That was better, but which McCain is the real McCain?

This is serious stuff. McCain made a promise to the voters who chose him over his rivals in the Republican primaries. If it appears that he is going back on that promise, or wobbling, or slipping into the old McCain who nearly lost the nomination, he’ll be in trouble.

And he won’t be glad he did it.

– This column originally appeared in The Hill.


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