The Real McCain
In fact, McCain has always been far more conservative than either his supporters or detractors acknowledge. In 2004 he earned a perfect 100 percent rating from Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum and a 0 percent from NARAL. Citizens Against Government Waste dubs him a "taxpayer hero." He has opposed extension of the assault-weapons ban, federal hate crimes legislation and the International Criminal Court. He has supported school vouchers, a missile defense shield and private accounts for Social Security. Well before 9/11 McCain advocated a new Reagan Doctrine of "rogue-state rollback."
"He's a foreign policy hawk, a social conservative and a fiscal conservative who believes in tax cuts but not at the expense of the deficit," says Marshall Wittmann, a former McCain staffer and conservative activist who now works at the Democratic Leadership Council. McCain's ideology resembles an exotic cocktail of Teddy Roosevelt, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan--a conservative before conservatism was bankrupted by fundamentalism and corporatism. His centrist reputation simply proves how far right the center has shifted in Republican politics. "The median stance for Senate Republicans in the early 1970s was significantly to the left of current GOP maverick John McCain," write political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson in their book Off-Center. "By the early 2000s, however, the median Senate Republican was essentially twice as conservative--just shy of the ultraconservative position of Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania."
Much of the moderates' love affair with McCain, and much of the conservatives' distrust of him, stems from 2000, when The Weekly Standard dubbed his reformist campaign an "insurrection." After the religious right smeared him during the South Carolina primary, McCain condemned Bush as "a Pat Robertson Republican" in Robertson's hometown of Virginia Beach, Virginia. Following Bush's election, McCain continued to stump relentlessly for campaign-finance reform, opposed Bush's tax cuts, became the Democrats' favorite co-sponsor on issues like global warming and a patients' bill of rights and fought government corruption harder than anyone in Congress. By 2004 he was flirting with the idea of becoming John Kerry's running mate.
The turning point came when McCain not only endorsed Bush for re-election but made more than twenty campaign appearances with the President and defended his Iraq policy at the Republican National Convention. Relationships with the Bush team have thawed considerably; when McCain now bucks the White House on, say, uniform Army restrictions on torture, it isn't viewed as a personal betrayal. McCain campaigned with Bush on his push for Social Security privatization last spring. And after leading a gang of fourteen senators who brokered a compromise on judicial nominees and the filibuster, McCain strongly supported all three of Bush's Supreme Court picks. Asked recently by Fox News how he gets along with the White House, McCain responded, "Very well. Very well."
"Do I want to be President? Sure," McCain told the Wall Street Journal in October. "Do I want to run for President? That's the question." Yet it's one of the worst-kept secrets in Washington that McCain is running, so long as his health holds up (he'll be 72 in August 2008, and he bears a deep scar along his swollen left cheek from melanoma treatments). The obvious question then becomes, Can he win?
McCain's staff and supporters believe he can reach "mainstream conservatives"--who value low taxes, less government and an assertive foreign policy more than social concerns--without alienating the middle. Another key, says Greg Stevens, McCain's media adviser from 2000, will be electability. According to one recent national poll, McCain runs neck and neck with Rudy Giuliani and bests Hillary Clinton 52 percent to 39 percent. "The party is pretty heavy with Bush people right now, and they will want to win again," says Stevens. "Many are very interested in John because they think he's got the best chance." Bush's media adviser in 2000 and 2004, Mark McKinnon, has reportedly already signed on with the McCain campaign. McCain's aides even told The New Yorker last May that Bush brain Karl Rove might lend a helping hand. If electability doesn't work, there's always McCain's heroic life story--the Vietnam card. "He was in Hanoi for five years, two spent hanging from one arm," says Stevens. "I'm happy to run that footage." Of course, an overreliance on war-hero machismo could backfire--just ask Kerry.