New Yorker Washington correspondent Ryan Lizza does, of course. With immigration once again dominating a Republican primary campaign, the longtime political reporter’s first instinct is to seek comment from a man whose political career has in many respects come to be defined by his approach to the immigration reform question.
Here’s how Lizza describes McCain’s history:
McCain probably has more experience navigating the issue of immigration than any other national Republican politician. He has fought off right-wing challengers in Arizona primaries and run twice in G.O.P. Presidential primaries. He’s occasionally reined in his enthusiasm for an immigration-reform plan that would include a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants—he hedged a bit during the 2008 campaign—but he has never abandoned the policy.
BASH: But on one huge McCain weak spot were conservatives, illegal immigration, a concession.
When asked if he would vote for his own legislation allowing citizenship —
MCCAIN: No, I would not because we know what the situation is today. People want the borders secured first.
But that was just to win the GOP primaries, so, for the seasoned campaign reporter, it didn’t really count. Indeed, once he moved on to the general election, McCain flipped back to supporting a path to citizenship.
But only until he once again had to win over conservative voters. In 2010 McCain “hedged a bit” further on comprehensive immigration reform, which is to say that he went full-on nativist. His heel turn is best illustrated by the campaign ad in which the champion of Straight Talk and longtime reform advocate patrols the border with a local sheriff and growls “complete the dang fence” like a late-period Clint Eastwood character.
2010 McCain accuses “illegals” of a litany of offenses: “Drug and human smuggling, home invasions, murder” — really, the only crime separating this rap sheet from the one Trump is currently flogging is rape.
That’s McCain “hedging a bit.” What do you call it when another senator, maybe one who is less friendly with New Yorker reporters, does the same thing? Apparently, you just let John McCain call it spinelessness and leave it at that:
McCain, who had a testy relationship with Senator Marco Rubio, another member of the Gang of Eight who is running for President, couldn’t resist adding, “Rubio backed away from it.”
I noted that Rubio, like many other Republican politicians, has been hard to follow on the issue and no longer supports the compromise approach that the Gang of Eight took in 2013: combining a pathway to citizenship and tough new border measures in a single bill. McCain licked his finger, held it up in the air, and laughed.
“You know that old song from before you were born?” McCain said, speaking of the Bob Dylan classic, “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
There the piece ends, with a barbed laugh line from Senator Straight Talk, still not afraid to tell it like it is, even when it comes to his fellow Republicans.
McCain’s reputation for speaking frankly — to reporters — has long allowed him to get away with speaking disingenuously to actual voters. The reporters know that when McCain embraces nativism, or suddenly has a change of heart on the propriety of flying the Confederate flag, he’s just doing what he has to do to quiet the rubes, and once the candidate is safely back on the bus he’ll give a wink to his real constituents, the press corps. His hypocrisies or rhetorical excesses are generally forgiven, unlike those of other politicians, who might actually say what they genuinely believe both to the press and to the public, or who at least deliver the same pandering message to both.
That’s why The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza has given John McCain, whose acrobatic maneuvers around an issue he purports to care deeply about have won him nothing but his own regular reelection, a platform to mock, unchallenged, his equally cynical colleagues, for playing the game he practically invented. McCain is indeed a person uniquely qualified to analyze Trump’s extreme rhetoric and Rubio’s cynical reversals — but only if he’s being questioned by someone who doesn’t still swallow his “last honest man” horseshit.