John McCain did not appear on any of the Sunday morning shows this week, nor was his name mentioned with any particular frequency.
But the conversation on the big three network programs centered on the two topics that have come to define and imperil the Arizona Republican’s White House bid: Iraq, where his stay-the-course rhetoric has largely dissolved the straight talk credentials that once made him such a formidable general election candidate, and immigration, which is rapidly eroding several years worth of peaceful overtures by Mr. McCain to the GOP’s conservative base.
What emerged from Sunday’s shows was a reminder of how far Mr. McCain’s stock has plummeted and a sense that if he is to right his sinking presidential ship, two dates loom large: Early July, when the fate of Mr. McCain’s immigration “grand bargain” may be clear, and September, when Congressional Republicans will likely press President Bush for the first time to scale back the American presence in Iraq.
As long as those issues predominate, though, Mr. McCain’s candidacy appears doomed, a fact underscored on ABC’s “This Week,” when host George Stephanopoulos highlighted a new poll, released this morning, that shows Mr. McCain’s support in the pivotal early primary state of South Carolina collapsing, with a mere 7 percent of respondents backing him, good for a very distant fourth place. (The still-unannounced Fred Thompson led the pack with 25 percent, followed by Rudy Giuliani at 21 percent and Mitt Romney with 11 percent.) Those findings are particularly devastating for Mr. McCain because South Carolina, which George W. Bush used to regain his momentum and to fend off Mr. McCain in the 2000 primaries, is precisely the kind of state where Mr. McCains’s militaristic posture and olive branches to the right were supposed to reap dividends in 2008. But his 7 percent is 35 points shy of the 42 percent of the vote he tallied when he came in second in 2000.
Mr. Stephanopoulos confronted Mr. McCain’s top South Carolina backer, Senator Lindsay Graham, on the numbers, suggesting they were a direct consequence of Mr. McCain’s identification with an immigration compromise that the right has reduced to “amnesty for illegal immigrants.”
“I think what will cost John more than anything else is not to be John McCain,” Mr. Graham replied, a not-unreasonable assertion given the political mileage Mr. McCain got out of his maverick image earlier this decade. And in many ways, Mr. McCain’s defiance of the GOP base in an effort to create a path to citizenship for America’s undocumented workers stirs fond memories among general election voters of the McCain they once knew. But in his next breath, Mr. Graham advanced a pragmatic argument that unwittingly demonstrated why the issue so hinders Mr. McCain with the Republican voters who will decide their party’s presidential nominee.
“John is telling the Republican Party, ‘If you want to win in ’08, you can’t win with 22 percent of the Hispanic vote,” Mr. Graham said.
Again, his assertion is plainly valid, given the bulging influence of Hispanic voters in American politics, in particular in swing states like New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado. But illegal immigration is not a pragmatic topic to the GOP base. It is an emotional one, a matter of stopping the U.S. government from taking any step that doesn’t punish those who crossed a border illegally, practicality be damned.
The party has been down this road before, most notably in California just over a decade ago, when Pete Wilson, his gubernatorial re-election prospects doomed, found temporary salvation in Proposition 187, which proposed stripping illegal immigrants and their children of all state services. Like Senators Graham and McCain now, sensible GOP voices like Bill Bennett and Jack Kemp warned their brothers and sisters in California that the scape-goating campaign would cost the party in the long-run. And it has. Besides Arnold Schwarzenegger, an immigrant who has embraced Californians of all ethnic and political stripes, the post-Wilson decade has seen the marked decline of the California Republican Party. But emotion trumped pragmatism in California in ’94, and it’s prevailing now in the national GOP.
The enervating effect of the immigration issue on Mr. McCain’s nomination prospects was highlighted last week when the Senate, prodded by a White House that will otherwise lack a meaningful second-term domestic achievement, opted to revive the stalled debate on the topic. Appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation” this morning, Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s GOP leader, labeled the reform package’s prospects “a mixed picture.” In terms of raw politics, though, Mr. McCain is surely less concerned with whether his bill passes or fails than with when the issue will simply go away. Mr. McConnell declared that the Senate will settle it “one way or the other before the Fourth of July.”