John McCain has a love-hate relationship with immigration reform. Or rather, he loves immigration reform but the conservative base hates it. That becomes apparent whenever he talks about it.
McCain and his conservative critics learned different lessons from the ill-fated attempt in 2007 to create a comprehensive immigration reform scheme. Conservative opponents of immigration reform interpreted the defeat of the Bush immigration plan as proof certain that opposition to legalization for illegal immigrants was a winning argument and that the public had embraced a border-security-only plan.
But McCain saw it differently. He survived a near-political death experience and then came back from the political grave to win the nomination of the G.O.P., a party supposedly dominated by anti-immigration reform conservatives. How did he do it? Not by renouncing his support for immigration reform, but by recognizing political realities. His formulation: border security first, but then comprehensive reform.
For months the argument was theoretical. Conservatives took pride in sinking comprehensive reform while McCain reveled in his reputation as a maverick who had defied his party and at least tried to construct a real solution to a knotty problem.
But now the fight has resurfaced. With each speech before a Hispanic group, the gap between McCain and his base becomes more apparent. No matter how often McCain promises that he has learned the lesson of achieving border security first, the conservative chorus rolls its eyes in disbelief. His talk about immigration reform is simply, as one activist put it, “a code word for amnesty.”
As for illegal immigrants already here, loud conservative voices either insist that they will never reward “law-breakers,” or they set the standard for border security and attrition of illegal immigrants already here so ridiculously high that it amounts to the same result: no legalized status for illegal immigrants.
McCain can talk all day about border security measures and employer verification but his critics aren’t listening. Anti-immigration reform conservatives accuse McCain of double talk and of planning an amnesty bonanza. They give him no points for having given it the college try with Ted Kennedy. Rather, it reminds them of all the things they don’t like about McCain – maverick, deal-maker, and compromiser.
Even his praise for Hispanics who served and sacrificed in the military brings groans from conservatives. Tom Tancredo went public with his outrage over McCain’s ad which celebrated the Hispanics whose names appear on the Vietnam memorial. And many conservative pundits grumbled as well. They take umbrage at the perceived insult that they can’t distinguish between legal immigrants who have served honorably and illegal immigrants. There simply is no winning for McCain with this crowd.
But McCain would be foolhardy to throw in the towel or to stop talking about this issue. After all, he won the Republican Florida primary on the strength of his support among Hispanic voters. He will need them and others in New Mexico and other western states to win in November.
Moreover, McCain has another reason for bringing up immigration which has nothing to do with Hispanics or even immigration itself. Both he and Barack Obama are trying to lay claim to independent voters who want less screaming and more problem-solving from their leaders. The very things — immigration reform, global warming legislation, campaign finance reform and judicial nominations (i.e. the Gang of 14) — which anger his conservative base potentially endear McCain to independents. They like politicians who know how to get things done.
That, in part, is why the McCain team was eager to pounce on Barack Obama’s recent attempts to bolster his own role in immigration reform, pointing to Obama’s votes on so-called poison pill amendments that killed the bill.
Even if his conservative critics would rather McCain forget about immigration reform and find other examples of political heresy to tout, McCain shows no sign of stopping. That may create some heartache for him in keeping conservatives in the tent and energized. But the alternative is worse: losing a powerful argument with independents and a vote-getting issue with Hispanics.
So McCain will have to grin and bear the screams from his base and resist the warnings, sometimes verging on threats, to pipe down. And he, of course, has the best evidence possible that his is the winning argument. He won the G.O.P. primary, didn’t he? He’ll need to keep that in mind and steal himself against the cries from the Right if he is to have a fighting chance in November.