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McCain's what he (almost) always is

The Arizona Republican with a reputation as a maverick has seemed to go back on earlier stands. In an interview, he says he's unchanged.

February 14, 2010|Doyle McManus

What has happened to John McCain?

This month, the Arizona Republican reacted angrily when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff came out for scrapping the military's "don't ask, don't tell" rule on homosexuals -- even though McCain earlier said he'd follow the commanders' advice on the issue.

Before that, McCain voted against a bipartisan proposal for a deficit reduction commission, even though he initially was one of the measure's co-sponsors. The vote was a jab at President Obama, who had endorsed the idea to show that he was serious about reducing the deficit.

So has McCain, the Republican maverick who bucked his party's leaders to launch bipartisan legislation on campaign finance reform, turned back into a partisan conservative?

Not really. He's always been a partisan conservative -- most of the time.

Ever since he entered politics as a foot soldier for Ronald Reagan in the House in 1982, McCain has been a fiscal conservative, a traditionalist on social issues and a hawk on foreign policy. Yes, he's broken with his party's majority on a handful of issues -- campaign finance, climate change and immigration -- but except for campaign finance, the breaks have never been radical or long lasting. His image as an independent has been exaggerated, often by those of us in the media who yearn for politicians to break ranks because it makes a good story.

Not surprisingly, that's McCain's story too.

"I don't believe that I've changed," he told me last week. "I'm somewhat entertained by the notion that I have."

In fact, McCain gave up most of his maverick ways beginning in 2006, when he decided to run for the Republican presidential nomination and found that he had to convince conservatives that he was still one of them.

That's when he reversed his position on then-President George W. Bush's big tax cuts; he had at first opposed them as a giveaway to the rich, but since 2006 he has wanted to keep them. And he made similar moves on other issues. Any voter who watched the 2008 presidential campaign knows that McCain ran as a thoroughgoing conservative. His only excursion into maverickland was choosing Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.

On gays in the military and other social issues, McCain has long been a more traditional conservative than his libertarian mentor, the late Sen. Barry M. Goldwater (R-Ariz.).

Critics have pointed to McCain's promise in 2006 to reconsider "don't ask, don't tell" if the military's leadership ever proposed a change -- and accused him of hypocrisy when he attacked Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, for doing exactly that.

But they have overlooked McCain's other, blunter statements of his views. "I remain opposed to the open expression of homosexuality in the U.S. military," McCain, the son and grandson of admirals, wrote in 2007.

That's still his position today. "It's my view that the rule is working," he told me. "Changing it was a campaign pledge by the president. It wasn't that there was any huge discontent in the military." If the leaders of the armed forces -- not just Mullen -- formally decide that a change is warranted, "I will pay close attention," McCain said. But that's all.

His vote against the deficit commission he once supported is harder to explain except as an act of party loyalty (Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell asked for it) and as another way to take a swipe at Obama. He said it's because he feared a commission with a Democratic majority would recommend tax increases. But McCain doesn't much like the Democrat who defeated him in the 2008 presidential election. And it's not simply because he lost the race.

The two tangled even before the presidential campaign, when then-Sen. Obama briefly signed on to a McCain proposal for bipartisan ethics legislation -- only to back out when Democratic leaders sponsored a different bill. A furious McCain wrote Obama a letter that he then released: "I'm embarrassed to admit that after all these years in politics, I failed to interpret your [promises of bipartisanship] as typical rhetorical gloss . . . to make self-interested partisan posturing appear more noble."

During the campaign, McCain never hid his view that Obama, 25 years his junior, was too inexperienced to be president, or his anger at what he considered distortions of his positions by the Obama campaign.

"I've always tried to be respectful," he said last week -- and then swung vigorously into denunciation.

"The president says he's serious about bipartisanship," McCain said. "But not once to my knowledge has there been a serious face-to-face negotiation where you start from scratch. . . . They figured they could just jam [their program] through and/or pick off one or two Republicans and call it bipartisan.

"There really has been no change in Washington," he said. "It's power politics. . . . That was not the rhetoric that the president used during the campaign."

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