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JONATHAN CHAIT

The hunt for the real McCain

Don't fall for the latest conventional wisdom. The Arizona senator is more liberal than he lets on -- and a champion flip-flopper.

April 16, 2006|JONATHAN CHAIT

JOHN MCCAIN and his fiercest enemies all publicly agree: He is and always has been a right-wing conservative. McCain recently insisted: "I think my voting record clearly indicates that on economic issues, national security issues, social issues -- I'm pro-life -- so I think I could make an argument I've had a pretty clear 20-some-year record basically being conservative." New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, voicing a common liberal sentiment, wrote that McCain "isn't a moderate ... when the Bush administration's ability to do whatever it wants is at stake, Mr. McCain always toes the party line."

Indeed, those of us who saw McCain as lurching to the ideological left a few years ago are now being portrayed as delusional romantics at best -- and partisan schemers at worst.

"McCain has always been a conservative, antiabortion, pro-military Republican who took more moderate positions on a few key issues," wrote Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz. "If he runs, he could well win the White House, shutting out the Democrats for the third straight election. And that is rallying the pundits of the left."

McCain's allies, and delighted conservatives, are joining in the taunts. There's hardly anyone left to defend the proposition that McCain had ever been anything but a conservative.

In George Orwell's "1984," the totalitarian regime had, only a few years before, been allied with rival power Eurasia. But, as the narrator explains, "since no written record, and no spoken word, ever made mention of any other alignment than the existing one," the regime could insist it had always been at war with Eurasia, and everybody believed it.

Fortunately, we live in a free country, where one can access the written record through databases of old newspaper and magazine articles. Apparently I'm the only journalist who bothers to use them, so let me remind everybody of a few pertinent facts.

In the first two years of George W. Bush's presidency, McCain became, in the words of one prominent Democrat, "the leader of the loyal opposition." McCain voted against both of Bush's major tax cuts.

In addition to shepherding campaign finance reform through Congress -- against the administration's efforts to kill it quietly -- he co-sponsored a patients' bill of rights with John Edwards (D-N.C.) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.); co-sponsored with Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) a measure to allow the importation of generic prescription drugs; co-sponsored with John Kerry legislation to raise auto emissions standards; and co-sponsored legislation with Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) to close the "gun-show loophole" and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in compliance with the Kyoto accords. On all these things he sided with Democrats against the White House and virtually every Republican.

One McCain advisor told me: "Ideologically, we all changed." McCain began casting his views in the style of noted progressive Theodore Roosevelt. "We have had regulatory agencies always to curb the abuses or potential abuses of the capitalist system," McCain explained at one point. "This is not a totally laissez-faire country."

McCain also showed signs of abandoning his social conservative views. He came out in favor of government-financed stem cell research. During the 2000 presidential campaign, he declared "certainly in the short term or even in the long term, I would not support the repeal of Roe vs. Wade." He said that if his daughter wanted an abortion, he would leave the decision up to her. (He did retreat from both these comments after conservatives recoiled in horror, but his real thinking on the subject seemed perfectly clear.)

During this time, McCain's advisors openly discussed the possibility of a third-party presidential run. He even flirted with a straight party switch. McCain had Democratic Minority Leader Tom Daschle stay at his home for the weekend. He met privately with several Democrats to consider switching parties, reported the Washington Post. After the Democratic Leadership Council's Will Marshall met to court him, McCain remarked, "I was struck by how much we were in common." Two of his top advisors, John Weaver and Marshall Wittmann, left the GOP and began working for Democrats.

McCain's current efforts to deny that he has repositioned himself are simply comical. He defends his visit to Jerry Falwell's Liberty University on the grounds that New York's New School -- where he also spoke -- "is a liberal institution."

Hey, one university is headed by a man who said the 9/11 attacks were God's divine retribution against America and whom McCain denounced as an agent of "intolerance," and the other is headed by Bob Kerrey, a man who once championed universal health insurance. McCain doesn't agree with either stance, so it's all the same, right?

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