Hollow Populism

By John Wahala on September 3, 2008

Senator John McCain’s choice of Governor Sarah Palin for vice president surprised most of the punditry, who are now chortling with glee over what they perceive as her lack of sophistication. What they actually deride is what the McCain camp is gambling will be her greatest strength—a life deeply rooted in a community far away from the corruption of Washington. Far from a liability, such localism is what has defined America and what most Americans embrace. And Senator McCain is hoping she can embody this sentiment.

Oddly enough, however, it appears the Republican ticket’s attempts to garner populist appeal will not include a position on immigration that resonates with most voters, who simply want the law enforced and more moderate levels of immigration. On the contrary, when Senator McCain does discuss immigration, an issue which he assiduously avoids, he advocates for amnesty and open borders. Just recently he echoed these themes while addressing La Raza and appearing with singer Daddy Yankee, an opponent of enforcement. There is perhaps no other position that is so widely unpopular with the public, who shut down the Senate switchboards last June in protest of Senator McCain’s failed comprehensive amnesty bill. That outpouring of public sentiment was described by Senator John Warner as the greatest constituent response in his 29-year Senate career and led Senator Jim DeMint to declare that the legislation had “become a war between the American people and their government.” And Senator McCain’s unwavering stance on immigration is credited with his near defeat in the Republican presidential primary and the tepid or complete lack of support he has received from many members of his party.

Senator McCain hopes Governor Palin will emerge as a reformer and confound the chattering class by proving ultimately successful. But if he wants to engender broad popular support, he simply needs to adopt a pro-immigrant, low-immigration approach that has been the country’s historical norm and is sought so desperately by those outside of Washington.