[See also Patrick J. Buchanan's What McCain's Tactics Teach]
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer might struggle to recall her lines in a televised debate. It could happen to any politician, even one as honey-tongued as Barack Obama if he were speaking unaided by a teleprompter. But Brewer had no trouble identifying a transformational issue that breathed life in her reelection campaign, which is something much rarer.
Prior to Brewer's embrace of the Arizona anti-illegal immigration law SB 1070, she was, to put it mildly, no shoo-in for reelection. But her decision, not just to sign SB 1070 but to become one of its highest-profile public defenders, changed all that. Rasmussen Reports documented her trajectory: in just one month, Brewer gained 19 percentage points among Republican primary voters and led her nearest primary opponent by 45 percent to 18 percent. Fully 85 percent of likely GOP voters now approved of her performance as governor, itself a 31-point jump. An eye-popping 87 percent of Arizona Republicans approved of their state's new immigration statute.
Not since California Governor Pete Wilson embraced Proposition 187 in 1994 had there been such a dramatic turnaround of a flagging reelection campaign due to illegal immigration.
Which brings us to the question: so what happened with John McCain? The very same Republican primary voters who rallied to Brewer, the conservative electorate that supports anti-illegal immigration stalwarts like state Sen. Russell Pearce and Sheriff Joe Arpaio, also handed a decisive victory to the man who ranked with Ted Kennedy and George W. Bush as the country's leading proponent of amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Some of this had to do with the candidates themselves. McCain spent $21 million vigorously attacking Hayworth. (Some of the money left over from not attacking Obama in 2008). Gotta love campaign finance reform! Unlike many other GOP Establishment candidates, whom Tea Party insurgents found asleep at the wheel, McCain took Hayworth seriously and savaged him accordingly. And of course Hayworth was a flawed candidate. He wasn't even perfect on immigration, though infinitely superior to McCain. He assailed McCain's vote for the TARP bailout, but nothing in his own record of support for Bushian big-government conservatism inspired much confidence that he'd have voted differently if he hadn't been bounced out of Congress himself in the 2006 election disaster. (See Washington Watcher's VDARE.COM analysis here)
And of course McCain had to completely reinvent himself on immigration. He disavowed amnesty—and even his old "maverick" label—and endorsed SB 1070. No longer was he reluctantly conceding he'd "build the goddamned fence" as a sop to Republican primary voters—he was now appearing in television commercials vowing to "complete the danged fence." He and fellow Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl released a plausible-sounding ten-point plan to secure the border, especially porous in the Tucson Sector.
Nevertheless, McCain's miraculous Houdini-like escape was a bitter disappointment for patriotic immigration reformers. And it is inescapably part of a larger pattern.
Many reformers believe immigration is a transformational issue in American politics. Some have gone so far as to predict it has the potential to upend the current two-party system. The demographic changes wrought by the post-1965 wave of continuous mass immigration are already transforming our politics.
So why are so many more McCain-like disappointments than Brewers and Wilsons? McCain's trick isn't even new: he did much the same thing in the 2008 Republican presidential primaries only to swing back to his pro-amnesty position in the general.
It's time to face what Al Gore might call "an inconvenient truth": the patriotic immigration reform movement's recent gains have obscured setbacks in important areas of the debate.
Over the course of the past decade, the intensity of public feeling about immigration has grown. The Minutemen and their fellow travelers are engaged in grassroots activism comparable to that of the pro-life movement. In fact, their citizen border patrols are in some way reminiscent of pro-life sidewalk counselors outside abortion clinics. (Certainly, the smears against both groups are similar.)
Yet it is impossible to imagine pro-lifers voting in large numbers for a candidate with a long, public record of support for legal abortion, much less one of the country's leading pro-choice advocates, simply because he cut a few television ads saying nice things about fetuses.
Pro-lifers have indeed accepted converts, especially when they have a dramatic conversion story—think Norma McCorvey of Roe v. Wade fame or NARAL co-founder Bernard Nathanson—or when they have changed their record to match their evolving rhetoric. But pro-lifers have seldom allowed candidates to make a mockery of their convictions.
Consider the case of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who sat atop the national polls of Republican primary voters for most of 2007. Giuliani was beloved by much of the Beltway Right, basked in the "America's Mayor" limelight after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. At least arguably, he had the potential to reach out to the independent voters then fleeing the GOP in droves.
But Giuliani was also one of the foremost supporters of legal abortion in the Republican Party. Since his 1989 mayoral campaign, he favored no meaningful legal restrictions on abortion. He supported taxpayer funding of abortion. Giuilani and his wife were Planned Parenthood donors. He was even pro-choice on partial-birth abortion, a position to the left of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Democrat he briefly sought to replace in the U.S. Senate, and of Joe Biden, the Democrat now serving as vice president of the United States. Giuliani had refused to change his stance on partial-birth abortion to secure the coveted Conservative Party ballot line in 2000.
Not even Rudy was crazy enough to believe he could win the Republican presidential nomination running on such a platform. Although he remained pro-choice, he reversed himself on taxpayer funding of abortion and partial-birth abortion. He emphasized federal judges and took credit for a drop in the abortion rate in New York City. Giuliani basically promised to be operationally pro-life.
Nevertheless, pro-lifers would have none of it. National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru contended that the supposed pro-life case for Giuliani "amounts to giving Giuliani credit for not going around performing abortions himself". [A Singular Issue, NR, June 11, 2007] And in the early states where social conservatives were most significant, Giuliani's primary campaign imploded. He was forced to gamble on an ambush in Florida—but by then the entire Republican presidential race had passed him by.
Mitt Romney faced similar hurdles, even though he explicitly repudiated his past pro-choice views and embraced the pro-life label. Many commentators chalked this up to evangelical voters having a "Mormon problem". While that may have been a factor, Romney had a much larger "Massachusetts problem": he had taken socially liberal positions on abortion and a number of other issues to win election in a Democratic state. Romney simply could not overcome YouTube clips showing him making pro-choice arguments with the same authority he was now just a few years later making pro-life arguments.
And abortion is just one example. Conservative voters focused on taxes or gun rights or opposing gay marriage behave no differently. Even when their Beltway organizations go wobbly, the grassroots usually hold firm.
So why is this not the case with immigration? Why have immigration patriots in the GOP allowed John McCain to get away with something that pro-lifers would not allow Giuliani or Romney to get away with?
My view: these other activists have simple and specific programs. Pro-lifers want to overturn Roe v. Wade and expand legal protection for unborn children. Second Amendment activists want to defeat gun control legislation. Taxpayer groups want candidates to pledge not to raise taxes.
But many restrictionist-leaning voters have only an inchoate sense that they don't like what mass immigration has done to their country.
This means that all candidates need to do to appeal to many such voters is promise to secure the borders and pretend to oppose amnesty. Because the incipient restrictionists lack a systematic policy agenda, they can be tricked by McCain appearing in an ad with a border-town sheriff in a way that a rank-and-file NRA member is unlikely to be persuaded by Harry Reid posing with a shotgun (the NRA leadership is another story).
Once in a while, an issue like Proposition 187, SB 1070, or the McCain-Kennedy bill, comes up to make the immigration issue clearer. But as evidenced by recent feints to the right on immigration by McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Meg Whitman, even here memories are short.
Meanwhile, gun rights groups are withholding endorsements from candidates (even Republicans!) for anti-gun votes they cast in the early 1990s.
In fact, the recent successes against amnesty—as important as they are—have in some respects helped muddy the issue further. The focus on amnesty has centered the debate on illegal immigration rather than mass illegal and legal immigration. Mark Krikorian has rightly pointed out that many Americans now assume that immigration they dislike is illegal, when many problems they associate with illegal immigration are actually connected to immigration policy more generally.
Worse, amnesty supporters have appropriated the restrictionists' reformist credentials. Back in the 1990s, to be for "immigration reform" was to favor curtailing illegal immigration as much as possible and reducing legal immigration to a manageable level. The Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus was Tom Tancredo's outfit, not John McCain's. Today the Immigration Reform Caucus still remains, but it is immigration expansion that usually travels under the name "comprehensive immigration reform". Opponents of such legislation are positioned as enemies of reform.
The challenge for patriotic immigration reformers is to connect the vague sense that unchecked immigration is damaging the country with a real agenda to do something about it—not just in the minds of policy wonks or internet-based activists, but in the consciousness of voters. The repeated defeat of amnesty shows this should be possible: The various incarnations of McCain-Kennedy contained as much border-security window dressing as McCain's television commercials, but immigration patriots were able to show that these security enhancements were insufficient or illusory.
And patriotic immigration reformers need a concrete legislative agenda. Weasel words about border security and fences simply cannot suffice.
To the extent that patriotic immigration reform is to be advanced through the Republican Party, its supporters must be also aware of certain realities. Conservative primary challenges are most likely to succeed when the incumbent is unacceptable on a number of issues and coalitions can be built with other conservative groups. Single-issue campaigns can prevail, but immigration hawks are not yet in the same position as pro-life or pro-gun groups. Achieving that level of influence will take time—and ruthlessness.
Patriotic immigration reformers must make McCain Republicans do more than imitate them. The GOP—and the rest of the political class—must fear them.