Sen. John McCain’s death is a symbolic inflection point in contemporary U.S. politics, for many reasons. One of those reasons: History may remember McCain as one of the last Republican leaders to believe that the party should stake its future on a humane and realistic approach to immigration, rather than on the restrictionist demagoguery peddled by Donald Trump.
For much of the past two decades, McCain worked doggedly, but ultimately unsuccessfully, with like-minded Republicans and Democrats in the Senate to fashion a grand compromise. Its essential point would have been to trade enhanced border security for a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants already in the country.
Such bipartisan efforts are almost impossible to imagine now, when the Republican president’s position on immigration is “build the wall,” and the equal and opposite reaction of some Democrats is “abolish ICE.”
Yet in 2013, 68 senators, including 14 Republicans led by McCain, supported a security-for-citizenship bill that would have, among other provisions, offered “dreamers” (unauthorized immigrants who arrived as minors) legal status, built 700 miles of fencing along the southern border (part of $30 billion in beefed-up security) and repealed the “diversity visa” program, which distributes green cards by lottery.
McCain pursued compromise believing that it was good policy — consistent with both the impracticality of mass deportation and with this country’s history as a land of opportunity and haven for the oppressed. He also considered it good politics, positioning the GOP as open to the nation’s growing Latino population.
The latter view was all but conventional wisdom among Republican consultants during the first decade of this century. Not coincidentally, during the years before his 2008 White House run, McCain expected the pursuit of immigration reform to help his own presidential prospects.
In his memoir published this year, “The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights and Other Appreciations,” McCain again called for immigration reform, describing it as “something this country needs to do now, in this political moment, as old fears and animosities that have blighted our history appear to be on the rise again, exploited by opportunists who won’t trouble their careers or their consciences with scruples about honesty or compassion for their fellow man.”
Yet as McCain’s words imply, the political prospects for immigration reform have rarely been bleaker than they are today. As the failure of his past legislative efforts — and that of his 2008 presidential campaign — showed, they were not even as bright as he and the party pros believed them to be in the recent past.
The harsh truth is that McCain and other Republican supporters of a grand bargain at the time — such as President George W. Bush, Jeb Bush and McCain’s close friend Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina — were sailing against a rising tide of opinion among the GOP rank and file.
In 2007, McCain grumbled that Rush Limbaugh and other talk-radio foes of his immigration proposal “were going to destroy the party,” as John Heilemann and Mark Halperin reported in their account of the 2008 presidential campaign, “Game Change.”
McCain was right, in the sense that immigration hawks were tearing down the relatively pro-immigration Reaganite ideology of the party in which McCain had made his career. He was wrong, to the extent that he thought the GOP could not survive in any other form, at least in the short term.
It turned out that the Republicans’ best shot at reclaiming the White House after the George W. Bush years was not to win greater support from Latinos and other “rising” demographic groups, as their political consultants advised, but to mobilize older, white voters from the heartland, based on an explicitly anti-immigrant appeal.
Hints of this were already evident in the backlash that McCain faced from voters on the 2008 campaign trail, many of whom confronted him with cries of “no amnesty” when he discussed immigration. Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 proved it.
Trump is now campaigning for GOP candidates in the 2018 midterm elections, depicting undocumented immigration as a scourge and the nation’s immigration laws as “a disgrace” that can be fixed, “but we have to get more Republicans. We have to get ’em.”
Defeat for the GOP this fall might make the party realize it has reached the point of diminishing political returns from the immigration hard line that helped Trump win the White House. A loss of the House and, possibly, the Senate could force Republicans to reconsider the course they are on — and to rediscover the wisdom of compromise.
Victory for a Trump-led Republican Party in November, however, would confirm the GOP’s repudiation of John McCain’s approach and perpetuate the GOP’s transformation into an openly nativist political organization.