06/21/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The "Straight Talk Express" Gets Derailed on Immigration

It is an amazing fall from grace. A wrenching story of throwing principle on the bonfire of politics to keep power at any cost.

I once knew a man of principle named John McCain.  John McCain was a hero of mine. Senator McCain 2010, we want John McCain back.

In 2005 through 2007 Senator John McCain partnered with Senator Ted Kennedy to fight for a much-needed but controversial comprehensive immigration reform bill. A group of us – advocates for immigrants and supporters of their plan – were close to the action.  It was the experience of a lifetime.

In the back room, where Senators let their guard down, talk strategy and reveal themselves in ways unseen out in front of the microphones, McCain and Kennedy seemed like superheroes in a world of lesser mortals.  They were about leadership not sound bites. They cared about getting it done rather than looking good. They had the guts to stand up to interest groups and loudmouths in their respective parties. They knew the risks but took big chances. They seemed to relish doing what is right in a town known for doing what is safe.

These are the kind of leaders the Founding Fathers envisioned when they crafted our democratic system. Or so I thought. These are the kind of Senators I imagined led our Congress when I became fascinated with politics in my 8th grade civics and history class.

Well, Senator Kennedy held true to his convictions until his last day on earth. He is destined for immortality. Senator McCain? Not so much.

Sometime this week Arizona Governor Jan Brewer is expected to sign the worst anti-immigrant bill in modern American history into law. It says cops must -- repeat: must -- act to determine the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally. And if they don’t they can be sued by any citizen who believes they are slacking off. Simply put, it paints a target on the back of every Latino in the state of Arizona, and represents a civil rights retreat of historic proportions.

Despite the fact that law enforcement leaders in Arizona and across the country are condemning it. Despite the fact that national faith leaders and civil rights groups are decrying it. Despite the fact that over 55,000 petitions were delivered to her office yesterday asking her to veto the bill, there’s one Senator who is jumping on the bandwagon of this vindictive bill in an especially disturbing way.

You guessed it: Senator John McCain (2010).

Yesterday Politico reported:

"I think it’s a very important step forward,” McCain said Monday. “I can fully understand why the legislature would want to act.”

Then, the Senator’s rhetoric got even worse as we learned from Huffington Post:

In an appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor" on Tuesday Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) offered a strange defense of a stringent new Arizona immigration bill that could lead to racial profiling. When asked by host Bill O'Reilly if he was comfortable with the possibility of racial profiling, McCain said he would be "very sorry" if it happened, but suggested it's justified because of "the people whose homes and property are being violated. It's the drive-by that -- the drivers of cars with illegals in it that are intentionally causing accidents on the freeway."

Say what?

A few years ago, John McCain called a harsh and similar criminalization measure approved in 2005 by the Republican-dominated House of Representatives “anti-Hispanic.” A few years ago, Senator McCain opposed Proposition 200, an Arizona ballot initiative modeled after California’s infamous Proposition 187, that was actually less threatening than the law before the Arizona Governor today.

A few years ago, McCain stood up to the anti-immigration wing of his party who wanted nothing but the mass deportation of 12 million men, women, and children, along with a bigger fence. A few years ago, at a June 2007 Presidential debate, McCain stood out amongst the immigrant-bashers pandering to party hardliners and spoke of immigrants as “God’s Children.” A few years ago, during the campaign against Barack Obama, McCain ran ads in Spanish-speaking media claiming his opponent was not as strong a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship as he had been.

That was the maverick McCain. And it’s still hard to let go of the old John McCain. Remember when he went to South Carolina after the 2000 primary and announced his regret for having been political when he favored a states’ rights stance on the Confederate Flag? How many politicians do stuff like that, I thought!

But just yesterday, McCain endorsed the proposed law in Arizona that makes the Arizona of 2010 seem like the Alabama of the 1950s.

Just two years ago I remember reading with amazement and, yes, adoration, about how McCain stepped into the Lion’s Den, stood in front of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) – the most conservative of all the conservative gatherings – and said:

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.

He might have said I’d rather stand my ground than lose an election. Sadly, that John McCain is but a memory. The Straight Talk Express now sounds more like a Tom Tancredo Tea Party knockoff.

McCain has already shunned the “maverick” profile that he worked for decades to cultivate. Now, his flip-flopping on immigration makes McCain seem like just another craven politician at a time when the country needs real leadership on the issue.

Of course, the full retreat from maverick to malleable didn’t come out of thin air. This summer, McCain is facing a primary challenge from former Republican Congressman and talk show host, J.D. Hayworth. So one could say that in an attempt to hold on to his senate seat, McCain has been making some rash—and fairly unbalanced – judgments. Steve Benen explains:

The politics of this are transparent. McCain is worried about losing to a right-wing primary challenger, so he's abandoning his principles and previous positions. But the irony is, in his bid to look more appealing, McCain actually looks more ridiculous -- the right knows his dramatic shifts on issues like immigration aren't sincere, while those who've respected McCain's willingness to break from the party line no longer recognize the political hack before them.

By trying to impress everyone, McCain is failing to persuade anyone.

So as the Arizona primary nears, John McCain continues to fight for his political life in Arizona, while advocates for civil rights and civil liberties fight SB 1070, the most anti-Hispanic bill in recent memory.

McCain’s decision to change course on an issue that used to define his integrity speaks volumes about the rightward lurch of the Republican Party. That lurch to the right by the party makes me really mad -- but I know things will shake out as the GOP is forced to confront the political reality of alienating the nation"s fastest-growing voting bloc for the foreseeable future. The lurch to the right by John McCain... just makes me profoundly sad.

Cross-Posted at America's Voice.