The Political Scene
Return of the Nativist
Behind the Republicans’ anti-immigration frenzy.
by Ryan Lizza December 17, 2007
The New Yorker
Once upon a time, John McCain was favored to win the Republican nomination. His straight-talking appeal and his cultivation of the Republican Party’s right wing put him first—at least in the early conventional wisdom. Then, last summer, his campaign seemed to spontaneously combust in a puff of fund-raising troubles and staff intrigue. But McCain has slowly made his way back into contention. The usual line is that he has done it by being “the old McCain,” the one that New Hampshire voters (and many journalists) fell for during his 2000 Presidential run. Unlike Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, or Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, two of his chief competitors, he holds a press conference after nearly every campaign event. Just before a recent trip to South Carolina, he invited a dozen reporters for lunch at his Arlington, Virginia, campaign headquarters (on the thirteenth floor, naturally).
Rather than trying to woo religious conservatives, an awkward alliance at best, McCain is focussing more on his natural base of independents (in New Hampshire) and veterans (in South Carolina). Instead of trying to run a by-the-numbers conservative campaign, he is emphasizing issues on which he has taken what he believes to be principled but unpopular positions. He is the only one in the Republican field who seems eager to talk about Iraq. “My friends, here’s the news,” he told a small crowd in Seneca, South Carolina, a few days after returning from Thanksgiving with the troops. “We are winning in Iraq. We are winning in Iraq. We are winning in Iraq.”
Over lunch in Arlington, McCain had given the stock explanation for what caused last summer’s difficulties. “The problem, which was my problem, was that our fiscal expectations weren’t met by reality,” he said—in other words, he couldn’t raise enough money. But the next day, as I travelled with McCain around South Carolina, he told me that his campaign’s brush with death had less to do with fund-raising than with his role in championing the ambitious immigration-reform bill, supported by the White House, that died in Congress this year. “It wasn’t the budgetary problems. That was an inside-the-Beltway thing,” he said, referring to press coverage of his campaign’s setbacks. McCain gets animated whenever he discusses the immigration issue. After a town-hall meeting in Anderson, South Carolina, he recalled how the Irish were discriminated against in America. As he quoted a placard that hangs on the wall of an aide’s office (“Help Wanted—No Irish Need Apply”), he jabbed his finger in the air with such emphasis that he knocked my voice recorder to the ground and erased our conversation. “It was immigration” that hurt his campaign, he said when he continued, after a series of apologies on both sides. “I understand that. I was told by one of the pollsters, ‘We see real bleeding.’ ”
There were two major factions in the immigration debate in Congress. A bipartisan coalition wanted a bill that included tough border-security measures, which everyone favored, as well as more controversial provisions concerning temporary-worker permits for undocumented aliens and a way for them to attain citizenship. Conservatives, led by Tom Tancredo, a Colorado congressman and Presidential candidate, demanded a bill that dealt only with security. McCain seems torn by how to address the issue, and he makes a small but telling concession to the Tancredo faction when he argues that security legislation must indeed come first. “You’ve got to do what’s right, O.K.?” he told me. “But, if you want to succeed, you have to adjust to the American people’s desires and priorities.”
During another conversation, when I asked McCain what he had learned from the arguments about immigration, he said, “I think the main lesson is that Americans had no trust or confidence in the government. So when we said, as part of this comprehensive solution, we need to secure the borders, add temporary workers, and address the twelve million people here, they just didn’t believe us, O.K.?” He argued that the mismanaged response after Hurricane Katrina, the Washington corruption scandals such as those involving the lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and unchecked government spending had undermined public confidence. “So what you have to do is prove to them that you’re going to secure the borders. And then I think that at least most of them—except for the Tancredos, who want to stop all immigration—would say, ‘O.K., I’m going to address these other issues.’ ”
McCain’s standard answer to immigration questions is that he “got the message.” But every so often this practical McCain, bending to the mood of the primary electorate, gets shoved aside by the quixotic McCain, the one who never seems happier than when he’s championing a lost cause. At one stop in South Carolina, at Clemson University, a student engaged McCain in an argument about whether his plan rewarded illegal immigrants for breaking the law. McCain was by then in a combative mood. Minutes earlier, a professor had asked about a piece of Internet-crime legislation that he argued would group terrorism researchers with actual terrorists. “Am I a terrorist?” the professor asked, his querulous tone suggesting that McCain hadn’t answered the original question. The questioner was wearing tennis shoes, jeans, a pink polo shirt, and a gray blazer, and McCain looked at him carefully. “With those sneakers, you’re not a snappy dresser,” McCain replied after a pause, as audience members gasped and laughed. “That doesn’t mean you’re a terrorist. Though you terrorize the senses.” To the student with the immigration question, McCain patiently explained that some illegal immigrants had faced unusual circumstances, and he mentioned a woman who has lived in the United States for decades and has a son and a grandson serving in Iraq. When the student said that he wanted to see punishment meted out to anyone who has broken the law, McCain stopped trying to find common ground. “If you’re prepared to send an eighty-year-old grandmother who’s been here seventy years back to some country, then frankly you’re not quite as compassionate as maybe I am,” he said. Next question.
McCain could stop discussing the controversial parts of his immigration plan or he could drop his support for them altogether, admitting that he was simply wrong, as Romney has done with abortion and other issues. I asked McCain about Romney, who had once expressed support for the comprehensive legislation backed by the Bush Administration—it sounded “reasonable,” he’d said—but now rails against it as “amnesty.” McCain said, “Both he and Rudy had the same position I did. In fact, Rudy was even more liberal. But, look, if that—” He paused and shrugged. “I don’t want to be President that bad.”
Later that night, at the CNN/YouTube debate in St. Petersburg, Florida, immigration declared itself the dominant and obsessive issue of the Republican primaries, and the issue also clarified some essential differences among the candidates. The two formerly moderate Northeasterners, Romney and Giuliani, taunted each other about who was tougher on illegal immigrants. On the other side were McCain and Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, who told their opponents that illegal immigrants “need some of our love and compassion” (McCain) and that “we are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did” (Huckabee). The Romney-Giuliani exchange prompted Tancredo, whose platform calls for restrictions even on legal immigration, to giddily declare that his opponents were trying to “out-Tancredo Tancredo.”
The emergence of Trancredoism as an ideological touchstone for two Republican front-runners is a stunning development, another indication of the Party’s rejection of nearly everything associated with the approach taken by George W. Bush. As a border-state governor, Bush boasted of his relationship with Vicente Fox, who became the President of Mexico, and he and his political adviser Karl Rove later argued that Republicans needed a pro-Latino vision for immigration reform. His strategy of cultivating immigrants as integral to the future of the Party seemed to work, and Bush did surprisingly well with Latino voters: in 2004, he won some forty per cent of their vote—double what Bob Dole achieved just eight years earlier.
In the late nineteen-nineties, when the Republican Party began embracing Bush’s pro-immigrant message, Tom Tancredo was a relatively anonymous backbencher. “When I first started on this, when I came to Congress, nine years ago, I found that I could get few, if anyone, to pay attention to the issue,” Tancredo told me as he was being ferried between campaign events in New Hampshire. “I remember going into a Republican conference meeting and asking if I could show a video that a night-vision camera had taken of people coming across the border in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, in Arizona. You had all of these campers parked, people sleeping, and in between were probably hundreds and hundreds of people, most of them carrying guns. And I was showing this and it was two hundred and twenty-two members of the Republican conference, and there were four left at the end of it. And it was a three-minute video. They walked out murmuring things, you know”—he made a mumbling sound—“ ‘immigration, immigration, immigration.’ ”
When I asked Tancredo about Bush’s argument that Republicans risked losing a generation of Hispanic voters if they adopted an immigration policy that many regard as nativist, he laughed and said, “It doesn’t seem to be holding its own very well, considering what happened the other night at the debate. If you think for a moment that Romney, Giuliani, and Thompson”—Fred Thompson, the former Tennessee senator—“haven’t polled the heck out of this thing, you’re wrong. They have. And they are there now because the polls tell them this is where they should be.”
The rise of Tancredoism has been aided and abetted by a number of factors, including an absence of strong leadership in the Republican Party and the greatly diminished power and popularity of the President, whose approval ratings fell as the war in Iraq went wrong and the government failed to act effectively after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. In December, 2005, the nativist wing of the G.O.P. in the House—marginalized by Bush’s semi-successful rebranding of his party as progressive on immigration—passed legislation requiring seven hundred miles of fence along the Mexican border, and reclassified as felons illegal immigrants. (The bill set off huge immigrants’-rights protests in dozens of cities in 2006.) The post-Bush, pre-Tancredo era of the Republican Party had begun...
Continued in "The New Yorker and the Nativist: Part II"