Now that the comprehensive immigration reform bill has died, analysts have looked at winners and losers of the contest. Almost certainly, one of the main losers has to be George Bush, who pushed hard publicly and privately for its passage. US News says, “Bush Sinking Along With Immigration Bill,” a fairly clear conclusion based on the extensive roundup they provide. He put his credibility on the line for this bill, and in the end could not even get a majority of his own Senate caucus to support him.
But which of the candidates to replace Bush gained the most from the bill’s failure? The Politico argues that could be John McCain:
While his office put out the requisite statement expressing disappointment that the immigration compromise failed, a McCain aide I talked with sounded more relieved that the issue was off the table.
While lamenting that its failure was “bad for the country,” this person indicated that they were looking forward to getting past an issue that had been the focus of the campaign for the last six weeks.
“We talked about it at every town hall meeting, we did talk radio, we did O’Reilly, we did regional press conference calls, we gave a speech in Florida on it,” the source pointed out. But having fought the good fight for what was recognized as a political loser, this person said they would use the summer to do grass-roots campaigning and seek to shift the focus onto “core economic issues” such as taxes, trade and spending.
This sounds counterintuitive, but Jonathan Martin may be right. First, no one who knows John McCain can honestly say that this bill changed their opinion of him. He introduced and vociferously championed a worse bill last year, and he has made no secret of his preferences on immigration. In many ways, he conducted himself in a more positive manner last year; his tone was intended to be as inclusive as possible, after lashing out a couple of times last year in frustration.
In a season of gotcha games on flip-flops, McCain may (eventually) get some credit for standing on principle. Senator Tom Coburn, who opposed the immigration bill, wrote an essay in National Review praising McCain for his political courage:
As the American people, elected officials, and commentators reflect on the heated immigration debate that came to a temporary close in the Senate this week many will ask, and have asked, why U.S. Senator John McCain (R., Ariz.) staked out a position that may, in retrospect, be seen as devastating to his presidential ambitions. I hope the American people, at least, step back from the obsessive play-by-play pre-season election analysis and reflect on Senator McCain’s actions for what I believe they were: One of the purest examples of political courage seen in Washington in a very, very long time. …
I opposed Senator McCain in this immigration debate. I believed the policies he advocated were wrong for America and I used every tool at my disposal to defeat his position. However, the way Senator McCain conducted himself represented the essential qualities of leadership the American people deserve.
Senator McCain didn’t speak in generalities. He spoke in specific terms. He didn’t take a position and change his position when he came under withering fire. He didn’t pander. He didn’t equivocate. He didn’t demean his opponents in the Senate or insinuate we harbored base motives or secret prejudices. He was motivated by principle. He believed he was serving his country. He was not inspired by political strategists who foolishly believed they could use this bill to grow the Republicans party, and did not lecture his colleagues about why those strategists were smarter and wiser than 80 percent of Americans.
When Senator McCain lost this battle he didn’t express self-pity or bitterness. Instead, he said he would carry on and offered a unifying message that is beyond debate, saying, “The American people will not settle for the status quo — de facto amnesty and broken borders.”
Whether you agree with him or not, Senator McCain’s actions demonstrated the qualities we rarely see in Washington — courage, character, honor, and dignity.
McCain’s numbers have drifted downward since the beginning of this debate, as voters get reminded of his position on immigration. However, now that the topic is off the table, he may start winning back some of those voters, who had to have known his position in January when he ran neck-and-neck for the lead in these same polls. As Dr. Coburn notes, he stayed firm in his convictions and gracious in his tactics, and some may reconsider him on that basis.
Some may not, too, and I suspect that McCain will find it difficult to recover the lost ground. Like Dr. Coburn, I’m not making endorsements, and I have disagreed with McCain in immigration, the BCRA, and on his actions in 2005 regarding judicial nominations. He takes positions and almost always tries to lead the national debate, sometimes to the extent that some feel he’s chasing the media when he parts with the GOP on policy. When a politician does that, he’s going to annoy a lot of people, sometimes rightly so.
However, and I have mentioned this more than once in my radio shows this week, there are few men who have given as much to his country and lived. A man who spent 7 years being tortured as a POW doesn’t deserve to be called a “traitor” over sincere policy disputes. McCain has made mistakes and may not be a good choice for the presidency, but he’s a man who deserves respect and an opportunity to make his case — and, like Dr. Coburn says, a man whose courage did not end with his return from Viet Nam.
We may not like the policies he promotes with such tenacity — but in an age where politicians too often change positions to suit fashion, one should at least respect fidelity when they see it. McCain may or may not benefit from the end of the immigration debate, but now that the debate has finished, hopefully we can at least give him the benefit of the doubt about his intention to do what he thinks is best for the nation.
UPDATE: Some people believe I’m “kissing up” to John McCain, which seems a little silly. Did Dr. Coburn “kiss up” to McCain? I admire the man for his service to our country, I’ll admit that, and in my limited contacts with him, he has struck me as a pretty nice guy overall. It doesn’t mean I’d vote for him or support his actions on immigration, the BCRA, or other issues, and I’ve been pretty critical of his politics. I don’t think treating an ex-POW as though he acts on honorable motives is unreasonable, outside of solid evidence to the contrary.