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What happened to McCain the maverick?

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., Special to CNN
  • McCain took a principled stand on immigration for years, says Ruben Navarrette
  • He says McCain has betrayed record by endorsing harsh Arizona immigration bill
  • Senator is facing serious primary challenge and wants to keep seat, he says
  • Navarrette: About-face fools no one, since immigration foes don't accept switch as genuine

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board, a nationally syndicated columnist and a regular contributor to

San Diego, California (CNN) -- Dear Sen. John McCain:

Say it ain't so. For many of us who have -- over the years -- admired your courage in tackling difficult issues, this was a painful and disappointing week.

A dozen years ago, I was writing a column for the Arizona Republic when I saw a story about your jaw-dropping support from Latino voters. You earned 60 to 70 percent of the Latino vote in re-election campaigns. You were quoted as saying that it was your "honor" to be well thought of by a population for which you had great respect.

I wrote a column commending you and saying that someone who spent 5½ years as a guest at the Hanoi Hilton probably doesn't take lightly a word like "honor."

In October 2008, a week before the presidential election, we discussed the knack of Republican politicians for using the immigration issue to alienate Latino voters by misdiagnosing the problem, oversimplifying the solution, resorting to demagoguery and making scapegoats out of immigrants.

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I asked what your Latino support meant to you.

You said, "It means we have to try to represent everybody when we carry out our duties in public office."

About how other Republicans blow it with Latinos.

You said, "I think that the way that many Republicans approach the immigration issue ... many of our Latino citizens were led to believe that Republicans were anti-immigration. A lot of the language and rhetoric that was used made Latino citizens believe that we were anti-Latino."

And about how other Republicans, in the mold of former congressman Tom Tancredo of Colorado, play to the mob.

You said, "Throughout our history, we have had people who stoked nativist instincts. There is good and evil in all of us."

Yet, this week, senator, you strayed from the good.

You declared that, though once you were a maverick, now you consider yourself a partisan. Great. Washington needs more of those.

You declared your support for an awful, dangerous and probably unconstitutional bill signed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer in Arizon that would make illegal immigration a state crime and empower local and state law enforcement to ask people (read: Latinos) for proof of legal residency. The law will encourage racial profiling and destroy the relationship between police and immigrant communities.

And, you proposed -- along with fellow Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, who, three years ago, crafted a Senate compromise for comprehensive immigration reform and now threatens to filibuster such a bill -- an enforcement plan to help Arizona combat border violence and control illegal immigration.

Your ideas: send 3,000 more border patrol agents to Arizona, deploy 3,000 National Guard troops to the border, increase funding for programs that help local law enforcement fight drug and immigrant smuggling, and require that anyone caught crossing the border illegally more than once serve 15 to 60 days in jail.

At a news conference, you said that all this was necessary because "border violence has spiraled out of control, and Arizona has been disproportionately hit."

You failed to mention that the reason illegal immigration has hit Arizona so hard is because so many Arizonans hire illegal immigrants. Cracking down on employers would not go over well with the Phoenix business community, but it's how we tell who is serious about controlling illegal immigration and who isn't.

Even as the son of a retired cop who has no qualms about locking up people who break the law, I'm tired of seeing powerful members of Congress -- or, for that matter, the Obama administration, which actually has quotas for deportations -- pick on those who have no power and no voice.

That's a coward's play. Suggest jail time for the folks who write checks for your fundraisers while, back home, they're having their food cooked, laundry done, lawns cut and kids raised by illegal immigrants, and then we'll talk.

We know that you're in a competitive re-election campaign back home in Arizona with cartoonish former congressman J.D. Hayworth, who is using the immigration issue and your past efforts to find a comprehensive and workable solution to a vexing national problem as a club with which to pummel you.

Like the opinions of many hard-right conservatives, Hayworth's views on curbing illegal immigration are sophomoric and fit neatly onto bumper stickers. Yet a recent Rasmussen Reports poll shows that your opponent has closed the gap to within 5 points. You lead him 47 percent to 42 percent among likely Republican voters. The primary is August 24.

This must make you nervous. Still, many of us weren't expecting an overnight extreme makeover into a fire-breathing conservative. And for what? Chris Simcox, co-founder of the border vigilante group, the Minutemen -- and a supporter of Hayworth's -- dismissed your primary conversion as "shameless election year politics."

You see, senator. This is a fool's errand. If people are looking for a politician who oversimplifies complex issues, exploits fears and divides people to win votes, they won't back someone who's just playing the role when they can vote for the real thing.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.