It’s primary day in Arizona, and John McCain will likely defend his Senate seat against his opponent, talk radio host and former congressman J.D. Hayworth, with a comfortable double-digit lead. But it hasn’t been an easy road to election day for McCain, who faced ridicule from Hayworth over his past leadership on immigration reform and then decided to run to the right on the issue to reclaim Arizona voters’ confidence. It’s been an even more uncomfortable election season for people who often appreciated McCain as a voice of restraint and principle. How did we, or rather, McCain, arrive here?
In the last ten years McCain has gone from being one of the most visible Republican leaders advocating humane and comprehensive immigration reform to one of its most aggressive hawks. Listen to the core policy proposals McCain has pushed over the years, and there are three main pillars he’s always kept in steady rotation: legalization for the undocumented population currently in the country; some kind of guest worker program; and strict border enforcement. For immigration rights advocates these reforms are not interchangeable, but they are nevertheless cornerstones of McCain’s immigration platform. The policies he chooses to elevate, or discard, depend a lot on the political moment. McCain was a cosponsor in 2003, 2005 and 2007 of the DREAM Act. McCain once defended undocumented immigrants’ right to adjust their status and claim Social Security. It’d be unthinkable for McCain to publicly defend any of these today.
Flip-flopping is nothing new—especially where John McCain is concerned—and cataloging public officials’ shifting stances on issues is something of a favorite media pastime. But McCain’s relinquishing his principles feels especially disingenuous and opportunistic, and therefore that much more unforgivable.
What has shifted more than anything is the tone of McCain’s speech. McCain of the comprehensive immigration reform era spoke of immigrants with humanity and respect. McCain on the 2008 campaign trail was much less interested in embracing the topic so bravely, which led to the newer, uglier McCain of 2010, who regularly casts all border crossers as smugglers, drug dealers, murderers. McCain of 2010 praised Arizona’s SB 1070 and is singlemindedly focused on ramping up militarization of the border by flooding the region with National Guard officers, Border Patrol agents and surveillance equipment. He willingly vilifies immigrants where once he defended and included the population.
In 2009 Think Progress and the National Journal broached the possibility that McCain’s souring on immigration came partially from a post-2008 election vengeance. McCain supposedly felt betrayed that Latinos had voted for Barack Obama two to one, and told immigration rights advocates to look to Obama for leadership on the issue, since Latinos were obviously so ungrateful for his years of commitment to the community.
Check out our interactive timeline as we trace John McCain’s immigration career over the years, and share some of his choice moments and notable public statements. We may never know who the real John McCain is, but it’s possible that he might not know anymore either.