The McCain Campaign's Death Rattle [UPDATED]
Answers on Immigration Relegate McCain to the Second Tier
By Mark I Posted in 2008 — Comments (33) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
Sen. McCain's presidential campaign ended last night. I didn't see all of the GOP presidential candidates debate. In the parts I did see, however, I saw three things from Sen. McCain. I saw him talking down to the audience, the other candidates, and the nation on the issue of immigration. Second, I saw Sen. McCain being beaten up by everyone on stage over his position on immigration. Third, I saw and heard him in an insultingly thinly veiled fashion accuse every opponent of his position on immigration of being a racist.
If that’s not enough of an indictment of the state of his campaign, consider that after the debate, all of the CNN pundits analyzing the performances of the candidates thought McCain won.
[Updated below the fold]
When I joined the debate, the candidates were discussing immigration. Gov. Romney and Mayor Giuliani were beating up Sen. McCain and the Senate immigration compromise. The attacks clearly rattled McCain. The Senator just stood there, staring down at his podium with an expression that looked for the entire world like he couldn’t believe that he had to defend himself from these guys. When it came time for him to respond to the charges, Sen. McCain didn’t even try.
His answer rambled on about how immigration is a national security issue and how we need to act now. There were no specifics, no discussion of provisions of the bill, just platitudes about the need to act on this issue now. Then, in a debate gaffe the likes of Pres. Ford’s denial that Eastern Europe was under Soviet domination and Vice-President Quayle’s reference to John F. Kennedy, McCain smugly challenged his rivals: “If anyone has any better ideas, I’d love to hear them.” Everyone on stage raised his hand begging for a chance to jump in and jump on the Senator with both feet. McCain had to be rescued by moderator Wolf Blitzer.
The next time I checked in on the debate, McCain was again defending his position on immigration. Only this time he was talking to the audience and using the phrase “my friends” a lot. This is a stock and trade phrase for the Senator and when he uses it, he usually does so in a warm and inclusive way. Last night, it was used differently. It was not inviting and inclusive, it was not warm, it was used coldly and in a lecturing kind of way. He was using it disdainfully; in the same way one might call a junior colleague “son.” “We have to act on this, my friends,” with the “my friends” trailing off at the end. Clearly McCain believes strongly in his position, and clearly he has no intention of changing his mind. That’s fine. But just as clearly the attacks on his position by the other candidates and the impact it has had on his poll numbers have made him angry. He no longer has the patience to explain his position on the issue as he does so well on the Iraq war, most of the time.
But even here, McCain, who has been as staunch a supporter of the mission in Iraq as there is, was not on his game. Early in the second portion of the debate, there was a question from the sister of a soldier who was killed in Iraq. I didn’t see his answer, but Sen. McCain scored points with the CNN talking heads by criticizing the conduct of the war and stating that mismanagement of the war has led to “unnecessary sacrifices.” This rhetorical formulation is no different than Sen. Barack Obama’s “wasted lives” comment. Whatever one thinks of the management of the war, it is too easy to simply say that the war has been mismanaged. What does the Senator believe should have been done differently? What does he believe could have been done that would have prevented the “unnecessary sacrifice” of one soldier? This is a lazy kind of answer that earns cheap points with liberal debate analysts because it appears enlightened and nuanced and takes a shot at the current president of the candidate’s party. But really, all it tells us is that Sen. McCain believes that the lives of some percentage of the brave troops who have been killed in Iraq were wasted. It doesn’t tell us a thing about what the candidate actually would do in a similar circumstance.
But the most outrageous answer of the night from McCain came in yet another defense of his position on immigration, this one his last. Paraphrasing, McCain said,
“We all know what we’re talking about here. People different from us, brown-skinned, with a different language and culture. They have greatly enriched my state and will enrich our national culture as well, just like every other immigrant culture that has come to our country.
That’s calling the opponents of his immigration compromise racist, plain and simple. If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, what is ascribing racist motives to one’s political opponents? It’s the death rattle of a presidential campaign. I oppose the Senate immigration compromise and would do so if it was intended to legalize millions of white, French-speaking, Quebecers streaming across the northern border from Canada. My opposition, and I venture the opposition of most of the bill’s opponents, has nothing to do with the color of the illegal's skin, but the fact that he is illegal. I hesitate to say it because Sen. McCain in his life has displayed a physical courage of which few, certainly not me, are capable, but Sen. McCain’s attempts to defend his position last night were intellectually cowardly. There was no concession to respect the position of his bill's opponents. There were no attempts to discuss the merits of the bill. There was only condescension and name calling.
Senator McCain resorting to condescension and calling his opponents racist is evidence of the desperation in his campaign. He was sinking fast before this debate. With his performance last night, particularly on the immigration issue, he attached an anvil to his ankles. Sen. McCain is a genuine American hero. He is a public servant of great integrity. But his drive to seek the presidency changes him. It was evident in the 2000 campaign, when he lashed out at Christian conservatives because he could not win their support. It was evident again last night, when in much the same fashion, Sen. McCain sought to demonize those who disagree with him.
If Sen. McCain cannot take the arguments against his political positions seriously enough to consider them something more than motivated by ignorance or racism, then he should not be considered a serious presidential candidate. Therefore, Sen. McCain is no longer acceptable to me as a potential nominee of the Republican Party.
UPDATE: 6/6/07 10:36 I just watched the debate again and saw Sen. McCain's last answer on immigration. He did not say "brown-skinned" as I reported. I'm quite embarassed by this mistake and apologize to the Senator and his campaign for attributing this misquote to him. It's no defense, but this piece was written in the immediate aftermath of the debate, with no transcript yet available, and I did say that I was paraphrasing his remarks. Still, I was wrong, and I apologize.
From the transcript, here is what McCain said:
My friends, we know what we’re talking about is the latest wave of migrants into this country. We have to stop the illegal immigration, but we’ve had waves throughout our history. Hispanics is what we’re talking about, a different culture, a different language, which has enriched my state where Spanish was spoken before English was.
So, I think in general the criticism still holds that McCain is not arguing in good faith against the opponents of his position on immigration. I still think this answer was a very thinly veiled reference to the motives of his opponents. Only it is now clear that he was calling them xenophobes, not racists.