Don't be fooled -- the Tea Party won bigtime in Arizona


As I begin writing this, the polls aren't quite closed yet in Arizona but it seems pretty likely that John McCain -- who has been the target of emnity from Tea Partiers and the more extreme right of the GOP ever since Nov. 3, 2008, the day he failed to save America from "the scourge of Barack Obama" -- is cruising to a big Republican primary victory over ultra-conservative xenophobe ex-congressman J. D. Hayworth.

I spent several days in Arizona back in March reporting for my new book "The Backlash." My sense from talking to a lot of conservatives -- including a kind of "Brooks Brothers riot" of raucous right-wingers that erupted against health care reform in front of the American Apparel and P.F. Chang's in the gold-plated main crossroad of Scottsdale -- was that anger over McCain's past moderation on issues like immigration reform was palpable and that the 2008 GOP standard bearer was highly defeatable.

By just about conservative who was not J.D. Hayworth, that is. I also spent several hours with or around the former pal of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff on a lazy Saturday morning at a dialing-for-dollars event inside a big tent at a Scottsdale resort. The lack of energy was palpable -- the event was underattended and those who did turn out seemed a lot more inspired by the pink-underwear-enforcing tough guy persona of Hayworth's top ally, hardcore Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Hayworth practically wore the adjective "unctious" across his sloped forehead, looking  and sounding every bit like the cheesy free-government-cash pitchman he was later devastatingly revealed to have been.

But Hayworth still did garner substantial backing from elements of the Arizona Tea Parties and noxious, nativist groups like ALI-PAC and over-the-top Minuteman activist Chris Simcox. And so now many pundits will be racing tonight to portray McCain's landslide victory as a crushing defeat for the Tea Party movement.

Don't believe that for one minute. To the contrary, the right-wing GOP primary challenge to McCain has proved to be the most glorious victory for the right-wing backlash against Obama of any election in 2010, even more so than the Senate primary victories for extremists like Sharron Angle of Nevada or Kentucky's Rand Paul. That's because the minute that McCain -- a chronic flip-flopper who makes the alleged "wind surfing" of Sen. John Kerry look like the 100-meter dash -- realized he was in the political fight of the lifetime, he moved so far to the right that he took any faint hope of political progress in Washington along with him as he plunged into the radical ravine of the Arizona highways.

The political playing fields of Arizona is the place where any hope of adult political activity in the capital in the second year of Obama's presidency  -- at least some kind of effort to pass an energy bill that would acknowledge climate change, for example, or a grown-up compromise on immigration reform that would have averted the xenophobic nonsense that's now taking place -- instead went to die in the hot desert sands.

Let's review.

Immigration reform: In 2006, McCain was arguably the most prominent advocate in Congress for comprehensive immigration reform -- including a pathway to eventual citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants now in the United States. When that effort -- which received a remarkable 30 GOP Senate votes initially -- failed and McCain entered the 2008 primaries, his position was more muddled but he did speak eloquently at times of the need to treat immigrants as "God's children."

Then along came the Tea Party and Hayworth. In 2010, McCain's entire spiel on immigration consists of "build the dang fence." Not only is he not working on comprehensive immigration reform, but he won't look at tamer measures like the so-called DREAM Act that would support undocumented students. His reversal on the subject has had a chilling effect on the prospects of reform, and may have influenced his closest ally Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who also stopped adovocating for a path to citizenship and recently even called for a review of the 14th Amendment and birthright citizenship. In addition, McCain issued a bizarre and arguably cowardly endorsement of Arizona's racial profiling law, SB 1070.

Climate change:  In running for president in 2008, McCain assured the American people that he took the problem of manmade global warming very seriously and that he would make the issue a hallmark of his presidency if elected. Even after he lost Obama, McCain could have moved to unite the small band of potential GOP moderates on the issue, including his ally Graham who once said called the Arizona senator " the guy that introduced me to the climate problem."

But McCain pulled a 180 on global warming as the Tea Party gained strength in the fall of 2009. As summed up last November by Politico:

McCain refers to the bill as “cap and tax,” calls the climate legislation that passed the House in June “a 1,400-page monstrosity” and dismisses a cap-and-trade proposal included in the White House budget as “a government slush fund.” 

The loss of McCain was essentially a death knell for climate change legislation -- even in a year of record global temperatures, collapsing glaciers and an ice-free Arctic -- especially as his also-under-Tea-Party-pressure protogee Graham back-slid rightward with him.

"Don't ask, don't tell." McCain's backflip to the extreme right on gays serving openly in the military arguably doesn't carry the same policy weight as his critical about-face turns on climate change and immigration, but his move was so stunning it did show his willingness to cave to the paranoid style on virtually any issue facing America at the dawn of this new decade.

McCain -- who had said back in 2006 that he would be guided by military leaders -- told Gates and Mullen that he was "disappointed" with the testimony. Overturning the law would "be a substantial and controversial change to a policy that has been successful for two decades," he said in his opening statement. "It would also present yet another challenge to our military at a time of already tremendous stress and strain... At this moment of immense hardship for our armed services, we should not be seeking to overturn the 'Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell' policy."

There's much, much more -- McCain's failure to support stimulus measures that would bail out Main Street after he led the fight to spend $700 billion to save Wall Street, his likely vote to extend the Bush tax cuts for the rich that he actually voted against in the early 2000s. The recovered "maverick" is now just a predictable cog in "the Party of No."

And all of this happened because McCain buckled in the face of an angry Tea Party and did exactly what anyone who's watched his long career unfold in Washington probably could have predicted he would do -- which is to say or do anything to save his own political rear end. Arizona is the place where the extreme right successfully derailed the promise of real change that America's silent majority voted for in 2008. Their secret was they didn't have to actually elect the hapless J.D. Hayworth to do this. All they had to do was honk their horns on a Scottsdale street corner, wave their angry signs and say, "Boo!"

UPDATE: McCain wins.

America already lost.