The Real McCain
Over the Senate's August recess, John McCain returned to Arizona to quash a brewing conservative insurgency in his home state. The Arizona Republican Assembly, a grassroots right-wing group, had recently censured McCain for "ignoring the opinions of his constituents expressed in numerous polls and personal pleas." The anti-immigrant Minuteman vigilantes had rallied on the Arizona-Mexico border in protest of his progressive immigration policy. Discord gripped the state GOP leadership. So the man who in 2000 dubbed himself "Luke Skywalker fighting his way out of the Death Star" headed straight into enemy territory, organizing a town hall meeting with rank-and-file conservatives in the desert town of Mesa. "Many of those in the crowd Thursday wore stickers with a circle and a slash--the symbol for 'no'--across the words 'McCain 2008,'" the local East Valley Tribune reported.
But the senator they saw projected a far more conciliatory image than the trash-talking maverick portrayed in the national media. Before the event he had endorsed teaching "intelligent design" alongside evolution in public schools, and he had expressed support for a rigid state ban on gay marriage that denies government benefits to any unmarried couple. After brief opening remarks, McCain took questions for more than two hours, referring to Reagan as "my hero," invoking the support of other conservatives on issues such as stem-cell research and immigration, and strenuously defending President Bush's Iraq policy.
The détente with conservatives that began with his vigorous embrace of Bush during the 2004 campaign has become a full-on charm offensive. "If he decides to run for President, the friendship has to be re-established," says McCain political consultant Max Fose. "There haven't always been town halls. There hasn't always been a dialogue." McCain isn't just reaching out on the home front. His office holds regular meetings with conservative leaders in South Carolina, where his approval rating sits at 65 percent. He has met with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, whom he denounced as one of the religious right's "peddlers of intolerance" after the 2000 South Carolina primary. After the antitax Club for Growth began running ads against McCain in New Hampshire, a state he won in 2000, he reversed positions and supported a procedural repeal of the estate tax. He has endorsed conservative Republican Ken Blackwell for Ohio governor. At the suggestion of conservative activist and longtime nemesis Grover Norquist, he campaigned for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's failed referendum initiatives in California, particularly the "paycheck protection" provision targeting unions' political activities. McCain's likely to be the most requested Republican campaigner in 2006 races. "He's the closest thing to a rock star in the Republican Party today," says Michigan Republican Party chair Saul Anuzis.
Unfortunately, most campaigns are a battle between who a politician is and who he needs to be to win. There have always been two sides to McCain: the conservative loyalist and the unpredictable maverick so often featured in the media. In preparation for 2008, McCain has largely chosen to unveil and market the conservative side. Many conservatives are warming to his routine; some are even beginning to like and trust him. It's fair to assume, though, that the more orthodox conservatives agree with McCain, the more he risks alienating moderates and forfeiting the independence that makes him unique and suggests he could become a great President. It's an uncomfortable predicament for a pragmatic problem solver with sky-high approval ratings and crossover appeal. "He'll have to decide whether he wants to be CBS's favorite senator or the Republican nominee," says Norquist. "He can't do both."
In late September, as Bush's presidency tailspinned, McCain headlined a dinner of conservative intellectuals sponsored by The American Spectator magazine. "Campaigning with George W. Bush was one of the proudest moments of my life," McCain declared. He downplayed his differences with Bush over immigration. (Both support a temporary-guest-worker program, but Bush wants illegals to return to their host countries after six years, while McCain advocates a "path to citizenship.") He railed against government spending and urged a hard line on Iran and North Korea. "McCain spoke fervently and with obvious sincerity about how much he admires Bush and the job he has been doing," wrote Michael Barone of US News & World Report.
"He thinks, not necessarily incorrectly, that he can pick off a few of us," says David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which rates conservative lawmakers. "It adds up to making him acceptable. He doesn't need 65 percent of the party to adore him, but he needs to defang their hostility." In this effort, McCain has been criticizing Republicans mostly from the right, shrewdly bolstering both his anti-establishment and conservative credentials--largely through appeals to what he calls "one of the bases of the Republican Party, a very important one, that believes in fiscal restraint and fiscal discipline." McCain has signed a "No Pork Pledge," fought against wasteful bridges in Alaska and urged deep cuts to nondefense and non-homeland-security-related spending--cuts that Democratic Senate minority leader Harry Reid dubs "immoral." At a recent appearance before the ultraconservative Heritage Foundation, McCain described himself as a "Barry Goldwater Republican" who "revere[s] Ronald Reagan and his stand of limited government." The routine has won him praise from the likes of National Review editor Rich Lowry, who recently wrote: "For the first time in years, conservatives have listened to McCain talk about a high-profile domestic issue and have nodded their heads vigorously."