How Dean Heller learned to love immigration reform

Sen. Dean Heller was adamant about the DREAM Act.

“I believe it is an amnesty program, a back-door amnesty program for the 12 to 15 million people who are here illegally,” Heller declared, apparently not caring or not knowing that the DREAM Act applied to a small subset (hundreds of thousands) of the total undocumented population (those who go to college or are in the military).

In his zeal to brandish the “amnesty” sword, which had proven to be a cutting issue for Republicans, Heller tossed truth to the wind while also waving off so-called birthright citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants, saying it “makes less sense today” than when the 14th Amendment was passed.

Heller, as usual, was on message. And the message was right out of the standard GOP playbook at the time.

That time was Oct. 15, 2012, a few weeks before the appointed senator became an elected senator by a thin, 12,000-vote margin, despite losing Hispanics by a staggering 41 points. It was Heller's second electoral near-death experience in six years, and he would react just as he had when Sharron Angle almost defeated him (he won by 421 votes) for Congress in 2006 -- he would, ahem, adapt.

Since Election Day 2012, Heller has undergone a remarkable metamorphosis, from Sen. No Amnesty to Sen. Immigration Reform Broker. All the two personas have in common is that they postures rather than positions, and neither is very believable. This is the same protean politician who was a maverick, hardly partisan secretary of state who suddenly became a super-conservative after Angle almost defeated him in that congressional primary.

Heller's latest effortless change was completed (or close to it) in a startling Friday piece in the Las Vegas Sun. Comically headlined, “Heller emerges as key player in brokering ‘breakthrough’ deal on immigration bill,” the story features Heller being credited by North Dakota’s John Hoeven as bringing GOP senators on board the border security compromise – although neither Heller nor Hoeven could name one of these mythical senators the rookie persuaded.

Here’s the truth: From the day Heller awoke on the day after the election in 2012, he knew he had to do something about the Hispanic vote or be a one-termer. The Latino percentage of the electorate will only get larger in Nevada, and the junior senator will not be lucky enough to run every time against a congresswoman with an ethics cloud.

So Heller has been dying to vote yes on immigration reform since last year, and he didn’t even make it look like an evolution as much as an abrupt, radical and jarring switch in positions almost immediately after last year's balloting.

To wit:

One week after the election, and only one month after he had made the DREAM Act sound as if it granted, yes, amnesty to all the undocumented immigrants in America, someone who looked a lot like Dean Heller, said this:

“There should be a pathway, absolutely there should be a pathway: If you served in our military and you’ve done it with distinction, I think you have a right — you’ve proven yourself — to become an American citizen. I think the same is true with those that are students that are continuing their education, that there should be some kind of a pathway.”

As Karoun Demirjian, the Las Vegas Sun reporter who interviewed him, put it:

"That, effectively, is an exact description of the Dream Act that Heller voted against when he was a member of the House two years ago, and a far cry from the rhetoric he employed in 2006, when Heller campaigned on a platform that included ending birthright citizenship, and in his first year in Congress, was quoted in the Reno Gazette-Journal stating bluntly that: 'I don’t support amnesty. I don’t support benefits for illegals. I don’t support the Dream Act. I don’t support anchor babies.’”

So what had changed, besides a statewide Senate election in which Heller had done about as well as Angle among Hispanics? Not one thing. Nada.

I knew after I read that story that Heller’s Election Night conversion would produce the arc we have seen in 2013: The harsh critic of illegal immigration, who used buzzwords such as “amnesty” and “anchor babies” and “illegals” that gave his base a thrill and sent a chill through the Latino community, has become Sen. No Labels, who wants everyone to work together and who made the decision last November or soon after that he would do everything to vote for immigration reform.

And here we are today. Heller is a beautiful prop in that picture for Hoeven and Bob Corker, ready to vote for the bill and come home as a hero to Latinos. I am reminded of that great Bill Clinton speech about Barack Obama during the heat of the 2008 primary: "This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen."

Through news releases that ad nauseam talk about how Democrats and Republicans should work together, Heller has positioned himself (as in changed his position) as a key swing vote, which brings him leverage on Capitol Hill (or so he must believe) and lessens the hostility (or so he must believe) of the ever-growing constituency he may need to maintain his job.

It is not news when a politician wields talking points or pushes hot buttons to win a campaign, then later softens or fuzzes up those positions when the realities of governing conflict with the inanities of campaigning. But the alacrity with which Heller went from parroting far-right rhetoric on illegal immigration to posing as an immigration reformer is stunning, even from a man who has morphed from maverick secretary of state to reliably conservative congressman to maverick senator.

For Dean Heller, it’s been a long, strange and yet somehow all-too predictable trip.

(Heller photos from Roll Call and KLAS.)