Sen. John McCain won the Arizona Republican primary against former congressman J.D. Hayworth this week, but he paid a heavy price. Never again will he be able to lead on an issue that was important to him and the Nation: reforming our broken immigration system. Not only did he flip-flop shamelessly, but it wasn't even necessary.
Hayworth was a huckster -- not just shilling for an outfit that promised "free" government money to anyone who'd fork over a few bucks, but voting for pork-barrel projects throughout his congressional career. And it was ultimately McCain's exposure of Hayworth's record that led to his 20-point victory.
McCain didn't need to pander on the immigration issue to be re-nominated. After all, he handily won his party's presidential nomination in 2008 after spending the previous two years in the Senate pushing for comprehensive immigration reform.
For all the blather emanating from some circles, illegal immigration is not a top voting issue for most Republicans. Jobs, the economy, taxes, the national debt, government spending, and terrorism all trump immigration as primary issues of concern in most polls. And even in Arizona, the frontline of the immigration war, McCain's record on comprehensive reform wasn't much of a factor.
McCain's admission, following his victory, that "we had to do what it takes," suggests his hard-line rhetoric was simply a bone thrown to the minority of Republican voters for whom illegal immigration is their top voting issue. He did the same thing when he was running for president in 2000 in South Carolina's primary, only at that time the issue was the debate over the confederate flag flying over the state capitol. When he campaigned in the state, he said he viewed the flag as "a symbol of heritage" and demurred over whether it should fly over the capitol as a "state issue." But he later called his statements an "act of cowardice."
Does anyone really believe that Arizona Republicans bought McCain's reinvention of himself as a clone of Sheriff Joe Arpaio? The Maricopa County loudmouth has earned a national reputation out of his hard-line on illegal immigration and happens to be under grand jury investigation for alleged corruption and abuse of power.
McCain's capitulation to what he once called, in my presence, "a strong nativist tendency" fooled no one. It simply besmirched his honor and dignity.
But McCain isn't alone. Candidates often take positions in party primaries -- both Republican and Democrat -- that they feel obliged to take in order to win. And winning, no matter what the price in abandoned principles, has become the rule.
Rare is the politician who is willing to stand up and tell the voter what he or she really believes. Instead, candidates hire pollsters to tell them what they should believe, and they then parrot whatever position polls best. But after the primary is over, the candidates must shuffle to reposition themselves again since they must now appeal to a broader electorate.
It will be interesting to watch McCain as he tries to pull back from his most outrageous primary positions, like favoring a constitutional amendment to deny citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants born in the United States. In the 2008 presidential election, 44 percent of Hispanic voters in Arizona voted for McCain over Obama. Hispanics made up 16 percent of the vote in Arizona in 2008 and will likely make up at least that large a percentage of voters in November.
McCain will likely try to mend fences with Hispanics and others who think he overstepped the bounds of decency during the primary. He will likely still win re-election -- he's up about 20 points over his Democratic opponent. But he'll never again be able to claim that -- agree with him or disagree -- he's always acted on principle. He'll remain a major voice on foreign policy and fiscal issues, but he's written himself out of the immigration debate.