McCain Misled CPAC About Immigration in 2008

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Immigration Bill

On Thursday, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) spoke passionately on the floor of the Senate in favor of the "Gang of Eight" immigration bill, pounding the podium and insisting that it be passed. He took responsibility for past failures to pass immigration reform: "I didn't do a good enough job in selling my colleagues on the absolute need for immigration reform." In the 2008 campaign, however, McCain carried a very different message.

In February 2008, shortly after rival Gov. Mitt Romney dropped out of the Republican presidential primary, McCain delivered a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in an attempt to mend relations with his party's conservative base. In his remarks, McCain vowed that he had learned from his past immigration reform efforts, and would now put border security first in the future--before other reforms.

McCain, enduring boos, told CPAC [text as prepared, emphasis added, video follows]:

Surely, I have held other positions that have not met with widespread agreement from conservatives. I won't pretend otherwise nor would you permit me to forget it. On the issue of illegal immigration, a position which provoked the outspoken opposition of many conservatives, I stood my ground aware that my position would imperil my campaign. I respect your opposition for I know that the vast majority of critics to the bill based their opposition in a principled defense of the rule of law. And while I and other Republican supporters of the bill were genuine in our intention to restore control of our borders, we failed, for various and understandable reasons, to convince Americans that we were. I accept that, and have pledged that it would be among my highest priorities to secure our borders first, and only after we achieved widespread consensus that our borders are secure, would we address other aspects of the problem in a way that defends the rule of law and does not encourage another wave of illegal immigration.

Note that McCain said that border security should come first, before "other aspects" of immigration policy were considered, implying that both should not be handled in the same piece of legislation. McCain appeared to understand that the American public did not trust the federal government to secure the border at the same time that it offered legal status to illegal aliens, based on the lessons of past rounds of immigration reform.

In his CPAC address, McCain also set a high standard, "widespread consensus," for determining when the country's borders were adequately secure. He also said explicitly that new legislation should not encourage illegal immigration. Yet his "Gang of Eight" bill fails on both of those counts, with the latest CBS projections estimating that millions of illegal immigrants would continue to find their way into the country after passage.

Perhaps McCain does not feel bound by promises made in the course of a lost campaign. But his statements to CPAC were not just about the policies he would pursue. They were also about lessons he had learned, about his state of mind regarding the issue. On Thursday, McCain acknowledged that there was "understandable skepticism" about immigration reform. Clearly he is no longer skeptical--if, indeed, he ever truly had been.


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