Home/Articles/McCain’s Last Battle

McCain’s Last Battle

The scene opens with two men walking down a long dirt road in Nogales, Arizona, near the Mexican border. The camera pans to John McCain, clad in a leather jacket and wearing a Navy baseball cap. McCain begins to enumerate the social disorders afflicting the region: “Drug and human smuggling, home invasions, murder.”

“We’re outmanned,” Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu replies. “Of all the illegals in America, more than half come through Arizona.” A concerned look flashing across his face, McCain asks, “Have we got the right plan?” He’s referring to the Border Security Action Plan he introduced with his fellow Republican senator from Arizona, Jon Kyl. It would send National Guardsmen to the border, hire 3,000 new Border Patrol agents, and, as McCain put it, “complete the danged fence.” “Plan’s perfect,” the sheriff assures him before signing off, “Senator, you’re one of us.”

It’s just a 30-second television ad, but its message may decide Arizona’s Aug. 24 primary for the Republican senatorial nomination. Arizona has become ground zero in the fight over illegal immigration. The legislature has enacted a series of tough new laws aimed at making attrition through enforcement the official state policy, the latest of which controversially allows police officers to ask for proof of legal status when, during the course of their work, they encounter someone they have a “reasonable suspicion” might be illegal.

This law, with its “papers, please” connotations, has set off a national firestorm. In Arizona, one poll showed voters supported it by 70 percent to 23 percent. Jittery moderate Republicans like Gov. Jan Brewer were loath to stand in its way. Now McCain, too, must convince Arizonans, tired of living with the daily consequences of sieve-like borders, that he is with them on the question of illegal immigration.

It will be a tough sell. McCain has for decades been mass immigration’s main man in the Senate. A pal of professional open-borders agitators like Juan Hernandez, he spent most of George W. Bush’s presidency as the leading Republican supporter of amnesty under the guise of “comprehensive immigration reform.” McCain championed such legislation alongside the late liberal Ted Kennedy, carrying water for the immigration lawyers who helped write it.

McCain’s amnesty advocacy nearly derailed his 2008 presidential campaign, before the last iteration of McCain-Kennedy was voted down and he began to embrace the enforcement-first position preferred by most Republican primary voters. But one man stands ready to remind Arizonans of McCain’s past record: former Congressman J.D. Hayworth, an alumnus of the Republican class of ’94 who today challenges McCain for the GOP Senate nomination.

A conservative radio talk-show host and former sportscaster, Hayworth is not afraid to raise his booming voice against McCain’s immigration gymnastics. U.S. News and World Report quotes Hayworth calling McCain’s commercial “just hilarious.” The primary challenger says he will launch a website called “The Danged Truth” contrasting the new Minuteman McCain with the four-term senator’s previous positions.

Hayworth isn’t the only Republican looking askance at McCain’s immigration makeover. MSNBC commentator Joe Scarborough laughed out loud after playing McCain’s “danged fence” ad on his show. “Brought to you by the guy who brought you Kennedy-McCain,” he said. Congressman John Shadegg, an Arizona Republican, was also obviously amused but said politely, “It seems like some politicians have changed ground on this issue.”

J.D. Hayworth hasn’t changed. Before he was unseated in the Democratic tsunami of 2006, Hayworth was viewed as one of Congress’ leading immigration hawks. He even published the book Whatever It Takes: Border Security, Illegal Immigration, and the War on Terror. In fact, his defeat was often cited by amnesty supporters as a data point against the popularity of immigration enforcement. Hayworth—who describes himself as the “consistent conservative” in the race—is positioned as one of this year’s conservative insurgents running against a candidate favored by the Republican establishment.

Unfortunately, Hayworth’s style of conservatism is very much in the fashion of the Bush years. On foreign policy, he is scarcely distinguishable from McCain: Kosovo was the last war he opposed; he voted to invade Iraq and hasn’t entertained second thoughts since. Steve Sailer might call it invade the world without invite the world.

Hayworth voted for the Medicare prescription drug benefit (McCain voted against it), which added trillions to the federal government’s unfunded liabilities and was the biggest new entitlement since the Great Society. He conveniently opposes budget-busting entitlements now that the Democrats are in charge.

As co-chairman of the Congressional Native American Caucus, Hayworth was the largest single recipient of Jack Abramoff-related financial contributions. He has publicly warned McCain that if the senator brings up his Abramoff connections, he will bring up the Keating Five.

Stylistically, Hayworth is more shock jock than statesman. George Will recalled that the former congressman jogged wearing a T-shirt that read, “If two teenagers can procreate in the back seat of a Volkswagen, why does a spotted owl need 2,000 acres?” Will quipped, “Hayworth’s middle name is not Nuance.” McCain put out a clever ad mocking some of Hayworth’s more over-the-top statements—regarding the president’s birth certificate, man-horse marriage, and some other colorful locutions—but the commercial had the potential to backfire by making conservatives feel that they were really the butt of McCain’s joke.

How competitive the race will be remains to be seen. The polls are all over the place—since April, McCain’s lead has ranged from a high of 26 points to a low of just 5—but Hayworth has yet to run ahead of the incumbent. McCain is nevertheless taking the challenge very seriously and running almost as if he is the underdog. In recent primaries and nominating conventions, candidates favored by the GOP establishment have either lost or won by much smaller than expected margins.

Where Hayworth has so far had his biggest impact is in forcing McCain to the right. Surely, the senator’s personal pique against Barack Obama is also a factor in his recent rightward drift. McCain’s voting record was at its most liberal in the several years after he lost the 2000 GOP presidential nomination to George W. Bush. The 2008 race didn’t leave him any more inclined to do Obama any favors. But it takes more than sour grapes and Arizona’s political climate to explain McCain’s explicit repudiation of his maverick past.

Already two liberal causes favored by McCain the maverick may be a casualty of the primary fight against Hayworth: amnesty and curbing carbon emissions through cap and trade. McCain is not believed to be involved in legislative negotiations with the Democrats over immigration. He has said he opposes the cap-and-trade bill with the best chance of moving through the Senate. In his absence, the Republicans’ leading point man to provide bipartisan cover to both these initiatives was Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who is one of McCain’s biggest allies.

In late April, Graham abruptly pulled out as a co-sponsor of the modified cap-and-trade bill and declared his opposition to taking up immigration this year. “Moving forward on immigration—in this hurried, panicked manner—is nothing more than a cynical ploy,” the senator said in an open letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “Unless their plan substantially changes this weekend, I will be unable to move forward on energy independence legislation at this time.”

Graham’s stated reason was that there had been no real talks laying the groundwork for amnesty, suggesting that the Democrats’ push was an attempt to turn out Hispanic voters this November rather than a serious effort to liberalize immigration laws. Offering up amnesty only to have the Republicans take the lead in voting it down—while liberal activists demagogue away—might conceivably benefit Democrats like Reid. It would also make the cap-and-trade bill a futile effort, as it would have to be addressed just before the election.

Washington insiders quickly recognized another Graham motive: taking up immigration would put McCain in an awkward spot. He would have to either vote against his conscience or take a potentially deadly position in the primary against Hayworth. Even if McCain found a convenient rationale for tacking to the right on immigration, simply bringing the subject up would probably hurt him with primary voters. Graham was riding to the Arizonan’s rescue.

That means both climate-change legislation and amnesty may be dead for the duration of this Congress. This puts McCain in the more enviable position of defending his home state’s get-tough approach to illegal immigration. He has called the controversial new law a “good tool” for police and said on the Senate floor, “If you don’t like the legislation that the legislature passed and the governor signed in Arizona, then carry out the federal responsibilities, which are to secure the border.”

One of those AWOL federal officials was, of course, Senator McCain himself. The man who now wants to complete the “danged fence” once told Vanity Fair that he would reluctantly “build the goddamn fence if they [voters] want it.” Who knows what conversion may lie ahead if McCain is safely re-elected to a six-year Senate term?

Arizona Republicans now find themselves in what has become a familiar position for GOP sympathizers: they must choose between a chest-thumping, Bush-league conservative or a Republican they cannot trust. Sounds like the Straight Talk Express to nowhere.  __________________________________________

W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.

The American Conservative welcomes letters to the editor.
Send letters to: [email protected]

about the author

W. James Antle III, contributing editor, is the Politics Editor at the Washington Examiner. A former senior writer at TAC, Antle also previously served as managing editor of the Daily Caller, editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation, and associate editor of the American Spectator. He is the author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Antle has appeared on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and NPR, among other outlets, and has written for a wide variety of publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Politico, the Week, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the Daily Beast, the Guardian, Reason, the Spectator of London, The National Interest and National Review Online. He also serves as a senior adviser to Defense Priorities.

leave a comment

Latest Articles