The New Yorker, December 17, 2007
Once upon a time, John McCain was favored to win the Republican nomination. His straight-talking appeal and his cultivation of the Republican Party’s right wing put him first—at least in the early conventional wisdom. Then, last summer, his campaign seemed to spontaneously combust in a puff of fund-raising troubles and staff intrigue. But McCain has slowly made his way back into contention. The usual line is that he has done it by being “the old McCain,” the one that New Hampshire voters (and many journalists) fell for during his 2000 Presidential run. Unlike Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, or Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, two of his chief competitors, he holds a press conference after nearly every campaign event. Just before a recent trip to South Carolina, he invited a dozen reporters for lunch at his Arlington, Virginia, campaign headquarters (on the thirteenth floor, naturally).
Rather than trying to woo religious conservatives, an awkward alliance at best, McCain is focussing more on his natural base of independents (in New Hampshire) and veterans (in South Carolina). Instead of trying to run a by-the-numbers conservative campaign, he is emphasizing issues on which he has taken what he believes to be principled but unpopular positions. He is the only one in the Republican field who seems eager to talk about Iraq. “My friends, here’s the news,” he told a small crowd in Seneca, South Carolina, a few days after returning from Thanksgiving with the troops. “We are winning in Iraq. We are winning in Iraq. We are winning in Iraq.”
Over lunch in Arlington, McCain had given the stock explanation for what caused last summer’s difficulties. “The problem, which was my problem, was that our fiscal expectations weren’t met by reality,” he said—in other words, he couldn’t raise enough money. But the next day, as I travelled with McCain around South Carolina, he told me that his campaign’s brush with death had less to do with fund-raising than with his role in championing the ambitious immigration-reform bill, supported by the White House, that died in Congress this year. “It wasn’t the budgetary problems. That was an inside-the-Beltway thing,” he said, referring to press coverage of his campaign’s setbacks. McCain gets animated whenever he discusses the immigration issue. After a town-hall meeting in Anderson, South Carolina, he recalled how the Irish were discriminated against in America. As he quoted a placard that hangs on the wall of an aide’s office (“Help Wanted—No Irish Need Apply”), he jabbed his finger in the air with such emphasis that he knocked my voice recorder to the ground and erased our conversation. “It was immigration” that hurt his campaign, he said when he continued, after a series of apologies on both sides. “I understand that. I was told by one of the pollsters, ‘We see real bleeding.’ ”
There were two major factions in the immigration debate in Congress. A bipartisan coalition wanted a bill that included tough border-security measures, which everyone favored, as well as more controversial provisions concerning temporary-worker permits for undocumented aliens and a way for them to attain citizenship. Conservatives, led by Tom Tancredo, a Colorado congressman and Presidential candidate, demanded a bill that dealt only with security. McCain seems torn by how to address the issue, and he makes a small but telling concession to the Tancredo faction when he argues that security legislation must indeed come first. “You’ve got to do what’s right, O.K.?” he told me. “But, if you want to succeed, you have to adjust to the American people’s desires and priorities.”
During another conversation, when I asked McCain what he had learned from the arguments about immigration, he said, “I think the main lesson is that Americans had no trust or confidence in the government. So when we said, as part of this comprehensive solution, we need to secure the borders, add temporary workers, and address the twelve million people here, they just didn’t believe us, O.K.?” He argued that the mismanaged response after Hurricane Katrina, the Washington corruption scandals such as those involving the lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and unchecked government spending had undermined public confidence. “So what you have to do is prove to them that you’re going to secure the borders. And then I think that at least most of them—except for the Tancredos, who want to stop all immigration—would say, ‘O.K., I’m going to address these other issues.’ ”
McCain’s standard answer to immigration questions is that he “got the message.” But every so often this practical McCain, bending to the mood of the primary electorate, gets shoved aside by the quixotic McCain, the one who never seems happier than when he’s championing a lost cause. At one stop in South Carolina, at Clemson University, a student engaged McCain in an argument about whether his plan rewarded illegal immigrants for breaking the law. McCain was by then in a combative mood. Minutes earlier, a professor had asked about a piece of Internet-crime legislation that he argued would group terrorism researchers with actual terrorists. “Am I a terrorist?” the professor asked, his querulous tone suggesting that McCain hadn’t answered the original question. The questioner was wearing tennis shoes, jeans, a pink polo shirt, and a gray blazer, and McCain looked at him carefully. “With those sneakers, you’re not a snappy dresser,” McCain replied after a pause, as audience members gasped and laughed. “That doesn’t mean you’re a terrorist. Though you terrorize the senses.” To the student with the immigration question, McCain patiently explained that some illegal immigrants had faced unusual circumstances, and he mentioned a woman who has lived in the United States for decades and has a son and a grandson serving in Iraq. When the student said that he wanted to see punishment meted out to anyone who has broken the law, McCain stopped trying to find common ground. “If you’re prepared to send an eighty-year-old grandmother who’s been here seventy years back to some country, then frankly you’re not quite as compassionate as maybe I am,” he said. Next question.
McCain could stop discussing the controversial parts of his immigration plan or he could drop his support for them altogether, admitting that he was simply wrong, as Romney has done with abortion and other issues. I asked McCain about Romney, who had once expressed support for the comprehensive legislation backed by the Bush Administration—it sounded “reasonable,” he’d said—but now rails against it as “amnesty.” McCain said, “Both he and Rudy had the same position I did. In fact, Rudy was even more liberal. But, look, if that—” He paused and shrugged. “I don’t want to be President that bad.”
Later that night, at the CNN/YouTube debate in St. Petersburg, Florida, immigration declared itself the dominant and obsessive issue of the Republican primaries, and the issue also clarified some essential differences among the candidates. The two formerly moderate Northeasterners, Romney and Giuliani, taunted each other about who was tougher on illegal immigrants. On the other side were McCain and Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, who told their opponents that illegal immigrants “need some of our love and compassion” (McCain) and that “we are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did” (Huckabee). The Romney-Giuliani exchange prompted Tancredo, whose platform calls for restrictions even on legal immigration, to giddily declare that his opponents were trying to “out-Tancredo Tancredo.”
The emergence of Trancredoism as an ideological touchstone for two Republican front-runners is a stunning development, another indication of the Party’s rejection of nearly everything associated with the approach taken by George W. Bush. As a border-state governor, Bush boasted of his relationship with Vicente Fox, who became the President of Mexico, and he and his political adviser Karl Rove later argued that Republicans needed a pro-Latino vision for immigration reform. His strategy of cultivating immigrants as integral to the future of the Party seemed to work, and Bush did surprisingly well with Latino voters: in 2004, he won some forty per cent of their vote—double what Bob Dole achieved just eight years earlier.
In the late nineteen-nineties, when the Republican Party began embracing Bush’s pro-immigrant message, Tom Tancredo was a relatively anonymous backbencher. “When I first started on this, when I came to Congress, nine years ago, I found that I could get few, if anyone, to pay attention to the issue,” Tancredo told me as he was being ferried between campaign events in New Hampshire. “I remember going into a Republican conference meeting and asking if I could show a video that a night-vision camera had taken of people coming across the border in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, in Arizona. You had all of these campers parked, people sleeping, and in between were probably hundreds and hundreds of people, most of them carrying guns. And I was showing this and it was two hundred and twenty-two members of the Republican conference, and there were four left at the end of it. And it was a three-minute video. They walked out murmuring things, you know”—he made a mumbling sound—“ ‘immigration, immigration, immigration.’ ”
When I asked Tancredo about Bush’s argument that Republicans risked losing a generation of Hispanic voters if they adopted an immigration policy that many regard as nativist, he laughed and said, “It doesn’t seem to be holding its own very well, considering what happened the other night at the debate. If you think for a moment that Romney, Giuliani, and Thompson”—Fred Thompson, the former Tennessee senator—“haven’t polled the heck out of this thing, you’re wrong. They have. And they are there now because the polls tell them this is where they should be.”
The rise of Tancredoism has been aided and abetted by a number of factors, including an absence of strong leadership in the Republican Party and the greatly diminished power and popularity of the President, whose approval ratings fell as the war in Iraq went wrong and the government failed to act effectively after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. In December, 2005, the nativist wing of the G.O.P. in the House—marginalized by Bush’s semi-successful rebranding of his party as progressive on immigration—passed legislation requiring seven hundred miles of fence along the Mexican border, and reclassified as felons illegal immigrants. (The bill set off huge immigrants’-rights protests in dozens of cities in 2006.) The post-Bush, pre-Tancredo era of the Republican Party had begun.
Another catalyst was the peculiar dynamics of this year’s Republican Presidential campaign. In 1999, when Bush made his initial foray into Presidential politics, he already had credibility with conservatives, largely based on his tax-cut promises and his religious convictions. It gave him latitude to be heretical on other issues. By contrast, the 2008 Presidential campaign features five leading Republican candidates, each of whom is viewed with suspicion by at least part of the so-called base. Unlike Bush in 1999 and 2000, Romney, Giuliani, Huckabee, McCain, and Thompson have spent most of the campaign trying to establish their bona fides with conservatives. The effect has been to push the field farther to the right, especially on immigration.
Anti-immigrant passion also owes much to the disproportionate influence of a few small states in the nominating process. National polls show that, as an issue, immigration is far behind the Iraq war, terrorism, the economy, and health care as a concern to most Americans; a recent Pew poll shows that, nationally, only six per cent of voters offer immigration as the most important issue facing the country. But in Iowa and South Carolina, two of the three most important early states, it is a top concern for the Republicans who are most likely to vote. “It’s the influx of illegals into places where they’ve never seen a Hispanic influence before,” McCain told me. “You probably see more emotion in Iowa than you do in Arizona on this issue. I was in a town in Iowa, and twenty years ago there were no Hispanics in the town. Then a meatpacking facility was opened up. Now twenty per cent of their population is Hispanic. There were senior citizens there who were—‘concerned’ is not the word. They see this as an assault on their culture, what they view as an impact on what have been their traditions in Iowa, in the small towns in Iowa. So you get questions like ‘Why do I have to punch 1 for English?’ ‘Why can’t they speak English?’ It’s become larger than just the fact that we need to enforce our borders.”
Mike Huckabee is the latest victim of the Republican shift on the immigration issue. We talked on what should have been a happy day for Huckabee. According to at least one poll, he had taken the lead from Romney in Iowa, and was enjoying a sustained burst of positive media coverage. “Oh, man, it’s been unbelievable,” he said in his winning, Gomer Pyle-like voice. “We’re up in New Hampshire and I’ve got more press coming to the events than I’ve got people. I’m not kidding. It’s unbelievable. We have so many people coming we can’t fit them in the places.” But Huckabee’s excitement was tempered by Romney’s persistent attacks on his immigration record as governor of Arkansas, and he seemed to be grappling with the intensity of the question among Republicans. “It does appear to be the issue out here wherever we are,” he told me. “Nobody’s asked about Iraq—doesn’t ever come up. The first question out of the box, everywhere I go—Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, Texas, it doesn’t matter—is immigration. It’s just red hot, and I don’t fully understand it.”
Romney has not been similarly reflective in trying to discern the source of the issue’s power. Rather, he has quickly and easily adopted the negative code words of the anti-immigration movement—“sanctuary cities,” “amnesty”—and has tried to attach them to Giuliani and Huckabee. In doing so, he became the first top-tier candidate to seize the Tancredo mantle. My own sense, from talking to Huckabee, a Southern populist, and McCain, a border-state senator, is that they are genuinely appalled by Romney’s tactics, not only because of the damage to their campaigns but also because of the damage they believe he’s doing to the Party’s image. Romney’s communications director, Matt Rhoades, said, “Both Senator McCain and Governor Huckabee have decided that to win in 2008, Republicans need to be more like the Democrats when it comes to illegal immigration. That’s the wrong course. McCain-Kennedy”—Edward Kennedy was a sponsor of the initial legislation—“was the wrong course. Governor Huckabee’s plan to give tuition breaks to illegal immigrants was the wrong course. America doesn’t need two politicians with records on illegal immigration that are in tune with Senator Clinton.”
“He’s clearly distorted my record as well as my position,” Huckabee told me. “But I’m not interested in getting in a war with him to see which of us can be the meanest son of a gun running for President.” He went on, “My experience has been—not just in politics but in any realm of life—when people keep saying something over and over, and louder and louder, it’s to compensate that they don’t want you to know that’s really never what they believed.” Nevertheless, last week, Huckabee, too, found his inner Tancredo: he announced the Secure America Plan, which included tough language about enforcement and pressuring illegal immigrants to return home. This leaves McCain as the only Republican candidate who hasn’t folded in the face of Romney’s attacks. At the press lunch in Virginia, after McCain had discussed his warm relations with several candidates, a reporter asked about Romney. “I’ve never known him,” McCain said icily. “I’ve never had a relationship with him.”
Barack Obama, during a recent interview with the editorial board of the Boston Globe, predicted that the Republicans will run next fall on two issues: terrorism and immigration. When I asked a leading Republican strategist and former Bush lieutenant if he agreed, he said merely, “I hope not.” He argued that it was incorrect to think that immigration was the second most important challenge facing the United States. “We need to address other issues, like the economy, health care, and education,” he said. When I asked Tancredo if he was leading his party “over a cliff” or “to the promised land,” he laughed and said, “I see manna out there.”
The evidence so far, though, points to a cliff. In several election contests in the past two years, Republicans tried and failed to deploy immigration as a campaign weapon. This November, Republicans in Virginia and New York who ran on the issue were defeated. Not even Eliot Spitzer’s misbegotten plan to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, which was thought to be ruinous for Democrats, has damaged the Democratic Party; rather, the Party increased its numbers in local races around the state. McCain says that last year he saw how toothless the issue was in Arizona. “Congressman J. D. Hayworth had a pretty good opponent,” he said of the former Republican from Arizona, who lost his seat in the 2006 midterm election. “J.D. ran just on the issue of immigration, in a moderate but Republican district. Arizona State University is there, in Phoenix. And J.D. got beat by four points in the general election. There was a guy who was going to take Jim Kolbe’s seat”—an Arizona congressman who retired last year. “Jim was there twenty years, and had always carried the district well. The Republican candidate was another one where immigrant, immigration, anti-illegal immigration was his theme. He lost by twelve points. So I think there is a lesson in some of those elections when people use anti-immigration as a major part of their campaign. But I also know that it galvanizes a certain part of the Republican Party.”
Far from fearing the immigration issue, some Democratic strategists are quietly cheering how the subject has played out. Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist who has closely studied the politics of the issue, says simply, “The Bush strategy—enlightened on race, smart on immigration, developed in Texas and Florida with Jeb Bush—has been replaced by the Tancredo-Romney strategy, which is demonizing and scapegoating immigrants, and that is a catastrophic event for the Republican Party.”
Besides McCain, who was the original Republican sponsor of the comprehensive immigration bill, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham is the Republican most associated with the legislation. Graham negotiated the details of the final version of the bill, which went down to defeat, and as a consequence he has become a target of ridicule on the talk-radio right. On the afternoon of the YouTube debate, Buddy Witherspoon, a Republican National Committeeman, was finishing a two-day tour of South Carolina, announcing his campaign to run against Graham in the June Republican primary. Witherspoon’s sole issue is immigration. After watching McCain’s testy forum at Clemson, I travelled a hundred and twenty miles to see Witherspoon in Aiken, a town of about thirty thousand. I found him setting up for his speech in front of a government office building at the end of an alley that abutted a shopping thoroughfare where tourists occasionally passed in a horse-and-buggy, casting curious glances. Exactly thirteen people were there to listen to him, including a ten-year-old who had accompanied his grandmother.
Dean Allen, a plump and friendly fellow sporting an American-flag tie, told me that he runs something called Spirit of Liberty; he’s also helping Witherspoon’s campaign. “Some of these people may be coming in here to get jobs washing dishes, but some of them are coming in here to hijack airplanes,” he explained. “If you’re down there trying to look at the people coming across the border, maybe a lot of them are just motivated by economics, and they want a job washing dishes or cutting grass. But I can’t tell Jose Cuervo from the Al Qaeda operatives by looking at them, because they cut their beard off. It’s like trying to get fly manure out of pepper without your glasses on, you know? I mean, not a racist thing, but they’re all brown with black hair and they don’t speak English and I don’t speak Arabic or Spanish, so if they don’t belong here and they don’t come here legally, I want to know who’s here.” He echoed McCain’s observation that the anti-immigrant feeling is strongest in states with new Hispanic populations. “The illegal Hispanic population, it’s definitely growing,” he said. “I can tell you just from how many you see when you walk in Wal-Mart, and you drive down the street and you see buildings now with writing in Spanish that says ‘tienda,’ which is Mexican for ‘store.’ You didn’t see that even a year or two ago.”
After speaking for forty-five minutes, Witherspoon walked across the street with me to Tako Sushi and we sat outside, where heat lamps warmed us. Witherspoon is tall and bald, and he spoke quickly, like a man full of opinions he’s been eager to vent. In his speech, he had run through many of the issues that have been festering on the right: the Law of the Sea treaty; an alleged plan to combine Canada, the United States, and Mexico into a super-state; the Patriot Act. But he was most exercised about immigration and about Lindsey Graham’s betrayal on that issue. “There’s a lot of unrest in South Carolina,” he told me gravely. “And people are concerned that the Senator no longer represents the views of mainstream South Carolinians in a lot of ways. Immigration is the No. 1 issue, no question there. We’re concerned about illegal immigrants coming in here and—well, under the Bush Administration, it’s now seven years into his term, and he hasn’t done a lot about it.” He was not impressed by Bush’s big-tent philosophy of courting Hispanics as the future of the Republican Party. “The big tent is great. But that doesn’t mean ’cause it’s a big tent you should include everything under the tent.”
When I talked to Graham a couple of days later, he did not sound alarmed by the Witherspoon challenge. With more than four million dollars in his campaign account, he can afford to be somewhat, but perhaps not entirely, relaxed. His pollster, Whit Ayres, has been monitoring the issue closely, and Graham was eager to share the results. His role in the immigration debate has indeed hurt him. “What’s happened for me is my negatives have gone up about ten points,” he told me. “My approval rating has come down about eight or nine points. That’s the consequence to me.”
But the numbers told another story, too. Graham read me one of the questions that his pollster asked about immigration. The poll tested voters’ opinion of three different proposals to deal with illegal immigrants: “arrest and deport”; “allow them to be temporary workers, as long as they have a job”; “fine them and allow them to become citizens only if they learn English and get to the back of the line.” In two separate polls, the majority supported the third option. The average for the first option was only twenty-six per cent.
“What it tells me is that the emotion of the twenty-six per cent is real, somewhat understandable, but if not contained could destroy our ability to grow the Party,” he said. “And I don’t think you need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that if you’re going to win a general election you have to do well with Hispanic voters as a Republican.” He continued, “My concern is that we’re going to have an honest but overly emotional debate about immigration, and we’ll say things for the moment, in the primary chase, that will make it very difficult for us to win in November. There’s a fine line between being upset about violating the law and appearing to be upset about someone’s last name.”
Graham, who is one of McCain’s staunchest supporters, had not yet seen a new poll by the Pew Hispanic Center, which reported that the gains made among Hispanic voters during the Bush era have now been erased. Nevertheless, he had a warning for Republicans: “Those politicians that are able to craft a message tailored to the moment but understanding of the long-term consequences to the country and to the Party are the ones that are a blessing. And the ones who live for the moment and don’t think about long-term consequences, demographic changes, over time have proven to have been more of a liability than an asset.” He added, “Be careful of chasing the rabbit down a hole here.” ♦